Words: Lucy Wagstaffe
Our world has a plastic problem. Nowadays plastic has a terrible reputation and we are bombarded with information about how plastic is polluting our natural world. David Attenborough recently described plastic as “vile” and “horrid” but optimistically told the BBC “I think we are changing our habits, and the world is waking up to what we've done to the planet.”
So, how has it happened that we have become so obsessed with producing and using a material that is so damaging to our natural world? We decided to look into the timeline of plastic and find out why making synthetic materials became so popular. We also delved into the advantages of plastic and how this material has transformed modern day society.
The first synthetic plastic
Once upon a time, in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt was financially motivated to find a replacement to ivory to protect wild animals from poaching. He found a way to treat cellulose from cotton fibre with camphor (oil extracted from camphor trees). For the first time, humans could make new materials and not be held back by the limitations of natural materials. His plastic was easily turned into other shapes and replicated horn, linen, ivory and tortoiseshell. This was just the start of plastic’s journey.
New plastics came along
The next stop on our plastic timeline, is 1907, when Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic, mass-produced plastic derived from fossil fuels, Bakelite. Bakelite was durable, heat resistant, a good insulator and could be easily mass produced so it was perfect for replacing shellac, the natural electrical insulator. This plastic, known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, was integral to an increasing electrifying United States. This was only the beginning and lead to the creation of polystyrene, polyester, polyvinylchloride (PVC), polythene and nylon in the 1920s and 1930s. This was just the start of the plastic revolution.
The new era of plastics - a utopian vision
The period during World War II was when plastics really took off in the world. It was important to preserve natural resources and so creating synthetic alternatives was prioritised. Nylon for example, which was created as a synthetic silk replacement, was used for parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, hammocks and mosquito netting.
After the Great Depression and World War II, the sales of plastic surged in the US. It was considered safe and inexpensive and so could be molded into almost anything; people started to have a utopian vision of plastic due to its endless possibilities. Unfortunately this utopian dream did not last, as plastic debris was observed in the oceans for the first time in the 1960s; thankfully recycling was introduced as a reaction to this in the 1980s.
What are the benefits of plastic?
We are all quick to say how much we hate plastic due to its destructive tendencies, but without this synthetic material our world would be a lot less advanced. We would not have the electronics that we now take for granted such as computers, mobile phones and lifesaving equipment in hospitals.
Plastic has helped raise the standard of living and provided people with many possessions that would otherwise be too expensive to buy. Our homes can be furnished with inexpensive materials and PVC-U double glazed windows are integral to making houses energy efficient. Plastics have also greatly improved the hygiene of our hospitals, for example, plastic syringes and tubing are disposable which reduces the transmission of diseases. Renewable energies can not be produced without pipes, solar panels, wind turbines and rotors, all of which are made using plastic. Plastic packaging also helps preserve our food and reduces weight in transportation, which saves fuel and therefore emits less greenhouse gases.
So, although we are quick to resent plastic due to its indestructible nature, it has enabled our society to advance in ways we didn’t deem possible. Plastic has also made our lives a lot more sanitary and safe. Plastic’s long lasting quality is what makes it so useful but also so damaging. So it is important that we try to buy alternatives and commit to recycling plastic when possible.
Words: Lucy Wagstaffe