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History of Plastics

        Plastic has been used for consumer goods for a longer period than most people may believe. The   Pre Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica participated in a ritualistic ballgame that revolved around an  object cast in natural plastic derived from horns and shells that dated back to 1600 BCE. This ball,   along with figurines and bands, were made from natural rubbers. The first official recording of plastic   use was in 1284 for the Horners Company of England which used tortoiseshells for natural plastic   production. Natural plastics dominated the world through the 19th century; a time that brought many   innovations approaching the plastic we know today.  In 1839, Charles Goodyear modernized   vulcanized rubber; a rubber formed from the addition of sulfur or similar additives, but was better   understood by a German physicist soon thereafter. The German physicist was able to solidify the   chemical makeup to make vulcanized rubber an effective and useful material. Also in 1839, another   German scientist discovered polystyrene (PS) which is today used for items such as meat trays, egg   cartons, coffee cups, and protection in packaging. This time period brought celluloid and viscose resins  used in plastic production. (See Production Processes for more information on resins). Polyvinyl  chloride (PVC) was discovered in 1872 by Eugen Baumann, but was not fully commercialized until the 1920s and occurred in the United States. PVC became extremely useful because one of its primary benefits was being flame retardant.

        The early 20th century ushered in a shift towards plastic use in the consumer world such as Rolls Royce using an increased amount of phenol formaldehyde in their cars and popularizes plastics. Up to this point, plastics had not explored the synthetic polymers available which were finally being recognized for their usefulness and diversity in properties. In 1929 the barkelite, discovered in 1909 as a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, became the first mass produced plastic resin and the following year PS was popularized by BASF (I G Farben), a German company. PS became available on the US market in 1937 soon becoming a vital piece in production processes during World War II. Polyethylene (PE) was discovered in March of 1933 by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett which now has multiple variants and is the second most widely used thermoplastic in the world following polypropylene (PP). (See The Many Types for a further description of PE variants). Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was the next resin to be discovered in 1941 by Whinfield Dickson. PET became an extremely useful plastic for packaging and in the 1950s a polyester film was invented followed by a polyester bottle using PET. The characteristics of PET has been so appealing with almost 100% light transmittance and carbon dioxide resistance that glass and aluminum have almost all been replaced in Europe except for in processes that demand UV protection or an oxygen barrier. Such extreme success has been seen with the six major categories of plastic defined by their polymer breakdown. 

A collage incorporating rubber and plastic litter  in the National Museum of Managua, Nicaragua. This 
piece was shown in an exhibit to promote recycling of plastics and reduction of litter.

        The 1950s was a major change to the field of plastic production. A consumer revolution raged allowing for plastics to become one of the most vital components of millions of goods. In 1954 PS was modified to expanded PS by the Dow Chemical Company and was used for insulation as well as moldable packaging. Also in 1954, polypropylene (PP) was discovered by Giulo Natta and became a production ready resin in 1957. PP is now the most widely used thermoplastic found in caps and lids and products that endure incubation.

        The following decades brought an increase in diversity of plastic types and the introduction of silicon gels along with acrylics in the 1960s. High performance engineered plastics were popular beginning in the 1980s and have allowed for the production of thousands of different plastic polymers that can be intricately bonded with additives. These additives allow for multiple properties to be added to a plastic such as the ability to retard flames, UV protection, chemical protection, temperature stabilization, pliability, and many other traits. There have been studies to explore the safety of additives to health and there have been changes in some forms of production to eliminate chemicals. One of the most famous of these chemicals is bisphenol-A (BPA) which has been eliminated by almost all plastics, especially polycarbonates. When exposed to heat or liquids BPA in the plastic was able to leach into the liquid or food and was then consumed by individuals, most frequently found in children's feeding implements.

    The evolution of plastic with advancements in technology allows for an almost limitless space to expand and become an even more effective material. Biodegradeable bioplastics are becoming more popular as natural gas resources are becoming more difficult and expensive to attain. The future of plastics revolves around more effective means of production and recycling post-consumer products into effective new materials. As plastic pollution is becoming a plague to Earth there are drastic actions needed in order to clean the mess already made and ensure that future generations do not follow the harmful practices of today.


Credits: Colin Quinn, Jennifer Estrada, Taylor Hummel, Joshua Perez, Shelby Hinds
Environmental Geology, Fall 2013
Thanks to Professor Feng and T.A. Naixin Fan