Plastic – From Natural to Synthetic
I’m going to take you through a short history of plastic in our lives; showing how it went from amazing life changing and innovative, to overproduced disposable trash in such a relatively short space of time.
There is evidence of mans use of natural plastics and rubber going way back in history, the use of latex rubber from plants and shellac from tortoise shells. But it was in 1839 when Goodyear (yes the tyre guy) discovered by accident how to “vulcanize” this natural rubber. This is the process of treating it with sulfur and heat to make it into the hard wearing, tough, long lasting stuff we have on our wheels today.
The first man-made plastic was derived from cellulose. This new wonder material could be heated and molded into the required shape and retain this shape when cooled, making it the first thermoplastic. Called Parkesine, it was unveiled at the great International Exhibition in London in 1862.
The real game changer in the development of plastics came about in 1909 with the development of the first fully synthetic, man-made plastic: Bakelite. It was lightweight, durable, and could be molded to any shape, it was also heat resistant and insulating.
Mass Production of Plastic
The mass production of plastic began in the 1940’s. It was viewed at the time as a thing of wonder, a miracle material that was going to change lives! In many ways it did. Starting with the introduction of tupperware in the 1940’s which allowed food to be kept airtight and fresh for longer. A variety of plastic packaging meant that food and water could be kept fresh and transported long distances. Plastics amazing flexibility lead to many innovations in areas such a medicine and medical equipment, building materials, and transport such as cars and aircraft. It cannot be denied that the discovery of this flexible
, versatile material that could be molded and shaped and treated in so many ways really did produce many amazing design solutions and technological advancements but…..it seems we have overstepped the mark somewhere.
Plastic Built to Last Forever
One of the most amazing properties of the material that enabled all these new inventions and innovations wa
s plastic is durable, hardwaring, and yes – built to last forever. And herein lays the problem as now we produce about 300 million ton
nes of the stuff each year with about 50% of this stuff being made for things designed to be used once then thrown away….plastic cups, plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, plastic packaging (so much plastic packaging), it really is almost impossible to escape. But if we can’t escape it entirely we really must become more aware of our own plastic usage and make a conscious effort to use less of it.
It’s time we learnt to not only Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, but also Refuse where possible.