The Interesting History and Future of Plastic

The first man-made plastic was created by Alexander Parkes and demonstrated at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London.

This new material, ‘nitrocellulose’, was organic (plant-based) rather than synthetic (oil-based). It could be moulded into a shape when heated but retained this shape when cooled. Unfortunately, it was also highly flammable. In fact an early use for nitrocellulose was as a substitute called guncotton to using expensive gunpower. The Parkesine company was formed to mass-produce nitrocellulose but it failed when scaling-up challenges impacted on product quality.

American John Wesley Hyatt picked up Parke’s patent and began experimenting with his formula, taking cellulose nitrate and mixing it with camphor oil (from laurel trees) and calling his new product ‘celluloid’.

Celluloid found mainstream fame as the plastic base for photographic film however like Parke’s invention, celluloid was also extremely flammable…it spontaneously ignites at 150ºC. This was often problematic when running it through a projector, past a hot light globe and condenser lens!

Also used as an alternative to ivory in products like picture frames, hair brushes, cutlery handles, fountain pens etc., celluloid is an organic material that decomposes naturally over time unlike modern synthetic plastics.

Modern plastics

Bakelite was the first synthetic plastic. Invented in 1872 by Adolf von Baeyer, a German professor of chemistry who later won the Nobel Prize for his life’s work synthesising plant-based chemicals like indigo clothing dye and developing barbituric acid, the parent compound for barbiturate drugs.

A Belgian inventor named Leo Baekeland took Baeyer’s creation and literally ran with it…. to the US where he set up factories making products ranging from telephones and radios, car parts, binoculars and billiard balls to jewellery and cutlery with the cheap, easily produced new material: Bakelite.

What we generally call ‘plastic’ now is thermoplastic. A chemical polymer (Greek for ‘many parts’) is made from fossil-fuel products like oil or petroleum blended at a molecular level with other ingredients. The names of different plastics often indicate what the polymer is: polystyrene, polyester, or polyvinyl chloride, PVC. Thermoplastics change shape when they are heated to produce a material that can be hard, soft, transparent, recyclable, even bullet-proof.

Thermoplastics were an amazing innovation which revolutionised everything from how we buy food to how we build airliners.

The problem is that unlike natural materials, thermoplastics don’t decompose. They do degrade slowly under ultraviolet light, but plastic buried in landfill isn’t exposed to light, so it literally lasts forever. And plastic rubbish that isn’t disposed of in landfill often finds its way into rivers and oceans where it kills wildlife and blocks nature’s processes.

Most forms of thermoplastics can be recycled by (you probably guessed by the name) melting them back to their original chemical form then reusing the raw materials again.

Future plastics

Apart from very visible reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle messages encouraging us to minimise how much plastic we consume and how responsibly we dispose of it …. science is urgently exploring better ways to recycle existing thermoplastics.

An amazing local invention called Cat-HTR is being developed by Australian company Licella with the University of Sydney. It is a generational step forward in plastic recycling, turning all different types of plastics back into raw material, oil, which can then be re-manufactured into new products.

Another approach is to revisit plastic before petroleum and work with natural oils from plants like castor beans for raw materials. Mass-market products including sunglasses are already being manufactured from plastics made with castor oil.

First Option is lucky in that our products are mostly virtual. We don’t mass-produce, distribute, or dispose of our products. Our Visa credit and debit cards are the exception and we work with local company Placard to produce all our cards, which are made here in Australia from 82% recycled plastic.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash