A (Very) Brief History of Plastics

––––––––––––––––––––Part 1 of 4 in our Plastic Free July series––––––––––––––––––––

Pink plastic cups against a white background

📷: Deeneris, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the beginning, there wasn't plastic. In fact, mass production of plastic has been around for less than a hundred years. In that time it has come to touch nearly every aspect of our lives, whether we want it to or not. There are endless varieties of plastics; they are found in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of characteristics, everywhere on the planet — including the places where they shouldn't be. It's worth understanding how we got here.

This article is the first of four to mark Plastic Free July. One of our driving missions at Ecovative is to replace polluting plastics with sustainable, Earth-compatible mycelium materials. In this post, we'll be looking at the origins of plastics, where they comes from, and how we find ourselves surrounded by so much of the stuff. 

One Word: Plastics

When we say the word 'plastics', we're talking about polymers — that is, long chains of molecules that create materials which are durable, flexible, and lightweight, among many other useful properties. The word itself comes from the Greek word Plastikos, meaning to form or mold. 

Before plastics, everything humans made came straight from the world around us in one way or another. Lumber, leather, ore, fibers (the cellulose in plants is a common natural polymer), bone, a vast variety of natural resources were processed or manipulated into useful items and materials. Humans learned to make alloys of copper around 5,000 years ago, for instance, kicking off the Bronze Age. We've always had a knack for mixing things that already existed, but creating completely novel substances, never before seen on Earth, is something we really only learned to do with chemistry. 

Gibson Hummingbird Guitar and Pickguard
A common celluloid pickguard. — 📷: John Tuggle from Decatur, Ga, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first plastic, appropriately, was made with natural ingredients. In 1869, inventor John Wesley Hyatt answered an ad for a $10,000 prize to develop a replacement for ivory — believe it or not, the number of billiard balls being manufactured at the time was driving down the supply, and proving devastating for animal populations. Wyatt's approach was to mix nitrocellulose fibers from cotton with camphor, a plant based wax, creating a compound material called celluloid that was durable and easily moldable, opening up new possibilities for product manufacturing. Some credit this invention to Alexander Parkes in the UK just a few years earlier, who developed a similar method and material, although Wyatt's 'celluloid' would become an incomparably larger commercial success. Synthetic textiles soon followed, ushering not only hardened plastic polymers, but softer ones that would make possible the manufacturing of synthetic textiles.

The revolutionary move to synthetic polymers, resulting from chemistry instead of simple mixture, happened around 1906, when Leo Baekeland invented what came to be known as Bakelite. Electrical lines were spidering all throughout the United States, and Baekeland sought to develop a replacement for the increasingly scarce shellack that coated and insulated the electrical wires. Through a series of tests in his lab, Baekeland refined a process for mixing phenol, a compound derived from coal and other forms of petroleum, with formaldehyde, which occurs naturally but is extracted through industrial processes. The result was a material that is durable and resistant to moisture, high temperatures, solvents, but most importantly, electricity. In 1909, Bakelite began production, moving quickly from electrical applications to electronics applications. Soon it was found inside cars, radios, guitar amplifiers, as well as combs, jewelry, ash trays, and countless other products. The plastics age had begun. 

Viewmaster Model E

View Master Model E, made with Bakelite. 📷: IlPasseggero, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

World War II offered a new renaissance for plastics, which made possible the mass manufacturing of weapons, equipment and vehicles that wouldn't exhaust finite natural resources like wood and metal. Nylon for example was originally invented by DuPont in 1938, originally as a replacement for silk stockings — the company lobbied the US government to use the polymer in parachutes cords, which upset consumers enough to trigger riots. Plexiglass, discovered accidentally by German chemists in 1933,  suddenly became essential for things like aircraft windshields. In the post-war boom years, plastics rolled into daily life like never before. It was a golden era of shiny new appliances, gadgets, and conveniences that filled the homes of the nation's blossoming suburbs — almost all of them involved plastic. 

By the 1960s, plastics was a monumental industry of constant innovation, powered largely by the availability of fossil fuels, itself a titanic, globe-spanning industry. New carbon-based chemistries for plastics were rolling out at a constant pace, as new technologies and scientific discoveries allowed previously impossible polymers to be created at industrial scales. Plastics became increasingly durable, adaptable, colorful, and sanitary, a boon for the medical industry. With these advances, and a cheap source of raw materials, in the form of carbon stored in vast reserves of goo-ified fossils (thank you dinosaurs), the promise for a future of abundant, affordable new goods and technologies became so common, it turned into a cliché. 

This can be seen a famous clip from The Graduate, where the one word of advice given to Dustin Hoffman's character is: plastics. By then, the promise of plastics was losing its shine, as awareness of their environmental impact became clearer and more widely known. 

With the ability to make a seemingly infinite range of long-lasting, lightweight, and cheap materials and products right as consumer culture took off in the United States and elsewhere, it's no surprise that plastics caught on. Over the last century, plastics have become as fundamental part of life on Earth, for better and worse. It shows how a new technology can make a massive difference. But over that same hundred years, humans have learned so much more about how our planet — and life on it — works. Our knowledge is catching up to our abilities as creative creatures, and we're discovering new ways of meeting the same needs that plastics have satisfied, in ways that actually support life on Earth rather than damaging it. We have plastics to thank for a lot of what defines our quality of life, but we should also recognize the example they give us about what we can and should do better moving forward. It's important to pay attention to those lessons, because we simply can't continue using plastics the way we have since Wesley Hyatt developed an alternative to the unsustainable (and indefensible) killing of elephants of ivory. 

To know what to do better than plastics, we have to understand where they came from, what they offer us, and what we can do better. In Part 2, we'll delve into the many problems with plastics, and why better alternatives are needed. To get an alert when the next post goes live, sign up for the Ecovative newsletter.