Imagine a world without plastic. It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? Though a relatively new invention, plastic has quickly become a central ingredient that makes modern life possible. We produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic each year and an estimated 8.3 billion tons since industrial plastic production began.
Plastics are an important component for the work we do here at Tencom. In combination with glass fibers, they allow us to create pultruded fiberglass components for a variety of applications.
We thought it would be interesting to explore a bit of the history of how this essential modern material came to be. We’ll also discuss some of the challenges modern industrial production of plastics poses and where things might be heading in the future.
What Are Plastics, Anyway?
We use “plastics” to refer specifically to a class of man-made polymers. Polymers are large molecules comprised of many smaller parts called “monomers.” Polymers are usually formed in long chains of repeating parts.
Polymers are not just synthetic but are found abundantly in nature. Wood is a good example, which depends upon the polymer cellulose for its structure and properties. When it comes to synthetic polymers, plastics are distinguished by their rigidity as opposed to highly flexible polymers like silicone.
There are natural substances, like horns, that resemble modern, synthetic plastics. It was, as it happens, out of a desire to be able to replace these natural substances with a manufactured alternative that the plastics industry was born.
An Alternative to Ivory
In the middle of the 1800s, there was an increasing demand for ivory to make items like billiard balls, piano keys, and jewelry. The color, workability, and durability of ivory made it a sought-after material for these and many other uses.
The problem, of course, is that the number of elephants is quite limited. Even in those days, people were raising concerns about dwindling herds and the sustainability of using this material. Besides this was a very practical concern: ivory was expensive.
This prompted a company that made billiard supplies to offer a $10,000 reward to whoever could invent an alternative to ivory. John Wesley Hyatt of New York took up the challenge.
As is usually true of inventors, he wasn’t working from scratch. He had purchased a patent for a synthetic plastic developed by Alexander Parkes in England. Parkes was looking for an alternative to shellac and created his plastic, dubbed Parkesine, from cellulose treated with nitric acid. Patented in 1862, it was the first synthetic plastic.
Though Parkes had even showcased his invention at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, he was not able to make it into a commercial success. Hyatt modified his formula to create a material that was more stable and easier to manufacture.
Hyatt’s invention, patented under the name “Celluloid” in 1869, sold well. It was used to make billiard balls, piano keys, false teeth, and many other items.
Celluloid, however, was not a perfect material. Its main problem was that it was extremely flammable. Apparently, a particularly forceful collision of billiard balls could even cause a minor explosion. There was room in the market for a similar product without this serious drawback.
The First Fully Synthetic Plastic
This need was met by the invention of Bakelite by the American chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907. Unlike Parkes’ invention, which relied upon natural cellulose as a key ingredient, Baekeland’s plastic was fully synthetic, made from a combination of phenol and formaldehyde.
Bakelite was an extremely versatile material that was an excellent insulator and, unlike celluloid, was heat resistant. It was a thermoset resin, which means once it was hardened into its final form it could not be softened again with heat. Celluloid, on the other hand, would readily melt.
Due to its effectiveness as an insulator, Bakelite was widely used in applications involving electricity. It was also used decoratively in a range of items from jewelry, to clocks, to combs.
The Modern Plastics Industry Is Born
If we move forward a couple of decades into the 1930s, we see a sudden explosion in advances in synthetic plastics. Polystyrene was developed in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene, and plexiglass all in 1933, and nylon in 1935.
The coming of WWII in 1939 greatly expanded the use of plastics, both because of the advantages of these materials and because of shortages in more traditional alternatives. Nylon, for example, was used in parachutes and ropes, and polyethylene was used as a light-weight insulator for radar cables in aircraft. Plastic production in the US increased by 300% during the war.
At war’s end, this expansion only continued, with plastics beginning to find their way into a myriad of consumer goods. Plastic was embraced as a cheap, flexible, safe material whose potential seemed limitless.
The Use of Plastic Today
Three of the most commonly used plastics today are low-density polyethylene, high-density polyethylene, and polypropylene. Together, they represent around 45% of plastic production. The largest applications for all types of plastic are packaging and building materials (like vinyl siding and PVC pipes).
There is great variety in this industry, however. Many other kinds of plastics are used and applications range from medical implants to electronics to toys.
The Problem with Plastics
Despite the early promise of these materials, and their ever-expanding usefulness, like many other innovations they are not free from problems. Two issues that have come to attention are their impact on health and on the environment.
Health concerns are due in part to chemicals that are found in certain plastics. In particular, evidence suggests bisphenol A (BPA) can leach into food from packaging and negatively affect the endocrine system. This problem has been addressed by many plastic containers now being manufactured BPA-free.
Moreover, tiny particles of plastic (called microplastic) are becoming increasingly common in our environment and showing up in our bodies. This raises concerns about what the long-term effects of this might be, a matter currently under study.
From an environmental perspective, discarded plastics are a waste product that often ends up in landfills or the ocean. In this context, one of plastic’s greatest strengths — its durability — creates a problem. It does not easily break down, meaning the plastic waste we create today will be with us for potentially hundreds of years to come.
These issues (along with concerns about fossil fuels as the source for most plastics) have led to increasing efforts to recycle and are prompting researchers to develop plastics that are biodegradable and that are created from renewable sources like cellulose. Some of these alternate types of plastic are already in use, for instance in biodegradable plastic bags. It will take more work, however, until they are ready to replace the most common types of plastic currently on the market.
At Tencom, we keep a close eye on developments in the plastics industry and look forward to the future developments that will continue to make this ubiquitous product better. Combined with reinforcing fibers, plastics have many useful applications in manufacturing and design. We’d love to have a conversation about how this material can work for you. Get in touch with someone from our team today.