The plastic revolution

Plastic is today a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Plastic’s ability to be moulded and shaped into any form makes it an ideal material and it plays a vital role in advancing technologies and shaping how we experience every day products. The down side is that plastic is chocking waterways, oceans and landfills, killing birds, sea life, and is appearing in remote forests and wild places. Plastic does not break down, but does break into minute bits and pieces of permanent pollution.

When plastic was invented at the beginning of last century it was the first material not derived from plants or animals but made from fossil fuels. Ironically Its development was prompted by the increasing scarcity of natural resources and plastic was seen as a revolutionary and sustainable way forward.

Polymers such as natural occurring cellulose found in plants, rubber, wood, bone, shells and ivory had been in use for thousands of years. In the latter half of the 18th Century inventors added camphor, improving the malleability of the material that became known as celluloid, leading to the birth of the film industry. Rayon, artificial silk, soon followed.

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Baekeland was searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural electric insulator to meet the growing demands of an electrifying world. Bakelite was not only a good insulator, it was durable, heat resistant, and ideally suited to mass production. Marketed as a material with a thousand uses, it was pure plastic – could be shaped and moulded into anything, providing endless possibilities. In the 1930’s these new plastics, polystyrene, polyester, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and nylon, were the height of glamour.

The Second World War saw petrochemical plants thrive as they produced everything from parachute fabric to radar insulation. After the war an alternative was needed to consume this plastic glut. Manufacturers turned their attention to the mass market with Tupperware being launched in 1948.

However, the reality of a product that lasts forever that was the backbone of a throw away disposable society soon became apparent. Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960’s and anxiety about plastics increased. Today the great pacific garbage patch is a swirl of plastic garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Apart from waste there is increasing concern about the impacts of additives to plastic such as bisphenol A on human health. Some scientists have expressed concern that these chemicals can leak out of the plastic to contaminate food and water.

Plastics are integral to our daily lives and are here to stay. Emphasis on research and innovation to develop alternatives to conventional plastics, search for biodegradable plastic, and make recycling more efficient is the way forward. As individual users of plastic, consumers can play a significant part in managing plastic pollution by supporting innovators, demanding more efficient waste management and taking stock of what and how much we throw away.

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