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History of Plastics: The Origin of Plastic

Hardly anyone alive today knows the truth of why the origin of plastics came to be and fewer can believe it. It is cautionary tale that we all should know, but very few do – that shockingly to us today – synthetic plastics were seen as the newfangled solution to save certain rare species from extinction.

Yes I know it’s counterintuitive – even mind-meltingly so – but plastic, one of the leading human agents of mass extinction today – was invented mainly with conservation in mind. 

The idea was a noble one – that instead of making items from materials ripped from rare animals, rubber/wood from trees and exotic ecosystems – we could use synthetic man-made plastic which would leave the wilds wild and bring in a new age of affordable everlasting tools and gadgets. 

How did it go so wrong? How did the mission of plastics become so corrupted? Why did an inherently long-lasting material become used to make products designed to break, sold so cheap that it led to ubiquity and disposability? Lets look at the journey of these plastics and find out.

a brief history of plastic

Combing the sea - Origin of plastic

We start in the industrialising imperial world of the late 1800s – where some animal-derived materials had become increasingly scarce.

One set of species – the enigmatic underwater cruisers that are turtles, whose shell was harnessed for combs – already 200 years ago faced extinction.

Inventors soon attempted to tackle this environmental and economic problem, with many patents for new semi-synthetic materials based on natural substances – such as cork, blood and milk. One of the earliest was cellulose nitrate— cotton fibres dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids then mixed with vegetable oil. Its inventor, the Birmingham-born chemist Alexander Parkes, patented this new material in 1862 as Parkesine. Considered the first manufactured plastic, it was a cheap and colourful substitute for tortoiseshell. 

Parkes himself didn’t enjoy commercial success—but his invention did, taken up and developed by the Celluloid Manufacturing Company in the US.  This new plastic made items like combs affordable to many more people – and aided in slowing turtle species extinction. 

Unlike Parkesine – which to me sounds like some awful diet version of butter – everyones at least heard of celluloid – which became synonymous with cinema film, but was used in everything from combs to table tennis balls. Ironically though as Hollywood stars made short hair popular in the 1920s thanks to celluloid film, the celluloid comb industry died — forcing manufacturers to switch making a newly fashionable product: sunglasses.

Bakerlite Billiard balls leaves poachers snookered

Elephants were facing extinction if we kept killing them for their ivory, which was used in items from piano keys to billiard balls. (I’ll guarantee you’ll still find in every old English house a set of ivory dominos carved by hand from an elephants tusk, ripped out of Africa over 200 years ago).   

By 1900 Elephant ivory was only becoming rarer – as new high power guns made slaughtering elephants easier and scarcity only made the rewards for this heinous harvesting higher.

The Celluloid Manufacturing Company had tried to replace ivory balls with their celluloid plastic – netting a $10,000 dollar prize – but the plastic proved unstable, requiring tonnes of pressure to mould – which had the nasty side effect of billiard balls occasionally exploding during games! However – 1907 saw the advent of an entirely synthetic plastic Bakelite which combined two chemicals, formaldehyde and phenol, under milder heat and pressure. Creating a superior substitute to celluloid & even ivory.

Bakelite went on to spark a consumer boom in affordable yet highly desirable products. It looked solid – like wood – but was easily mass-produced, allowing affordable products sold in millions.

origin of plastic

Wanting to Using Waste - creates plastic rubbish

In the 1920s, the demand for oil to make these new plastic consumer goods was competing with the demand for oil for transport and electricity – so their was a strong desire to create consumer plastics from ‘waste materials’ left from processing crude oil and natural gas. 

This led petroleum and plastics companies to become united – forming together into massive companies like Dow Chemicals, ExxonMobil, DuPont and BASF. You might have heard of them as these companies are still the major producers of raw plastic today.

The first big success for the giants was Perspex in 1932, followed a year later by the accidentally discovery of the worlds most abundant plastic – polyethylene. Whilst attempting to combine ethylene and benzaldehyde under great pressure and heat, a leak of oxygen into the vessel caused the experiment to fail – leaving a white waxy substance – polyethylene.

Now the world’s most abundant plastic, polyethylene was considered a wonder material: strong, flexible and heat-resistant. Its first success was as a top-secret radar insulation in WW2.  This is because polyethylene was so strong yet light and thin that it made placing radar onto airplanes possible by vastly reducing the weight. After WW2 when the demand for consumer products soon followed – with the indestructible everlasting polyethylene is used in everything: from the food-waste saving Tupperware and miracle medical devices such an artificial hips; to entangling commercial fishing ropes and the ever present plastic bag.

plastic pollution history

The Bad type of PET: PET Plastic in a Partying Post-War World

It was in the 1950s the problems began, when plastic replaced the more expensive natural materials used in disposable items, such as paper consumer packaging and fibre-based fishing nets.

Single use boomed worldwide in the following decades. With the invention of the PET bottle being one worth special mention. PET had many advantages over glass: cheap, lightweight for transport and safe as it’s virtually unbreakable. The result still today around 500 billion PET bottles have been sold every year for decades. The bonkers bit to me – we’ve known for years the majority of these bottles end up in our oceans and that drinking/eating from PET packaging leads to infertility and cancers – and yet the figure of just PET bottles is increasing year on year

One of the reasons PET is still used for bottles may be its apparent easy recycling…

history of single use plastic

Recycling codes - The BIG LIE

30 years ago – the plastic industry was already facing a massive backlash. People were sick of everlasting waste piling up and had already began to grasp the massive harm it was doing to the environment. 

Fearing a ban on plastics, manufacturers came up with a masterful wheeze – and started stamping plastics with the now ubiquitous three chasing-arrows symbol with a number inside. 

Now why haven’t I called this a ‘recycling logo’. Well because it isn’t a recycling logo.

Like everyone else for years I assumed the symbol meant the product was recyclable and simply aided in sorting by one of the 7 types of plastic. It’s not – it’s a Resin Identification Code – it simply states the family of plastics it belongs to but not the exact mix.

Why does this matter – even two labelled PET items, a bottle of Coke and a water bottle for example, may have different melting temperatures that produce an unusable sludge when combined.

The worst part is only the manufacturer will ever know exactly what the mix is – scientific means of sorting plastics like spectroscopic analysis are not economically viable on a big scale, costing thousands per sample – so it’s down to human sorters and trial and error to do the job.

This means that even though to us – it literally says it’s recyclable right on it – recyclers find they can’t even pay to have many items of plastic taken away. 

 The recycling symbol is a greenwashing marketing tool. If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment. The industry knew that recycling was ultimately not going to work in a significant way and yet spent millions on ads selling plastics recycling.

history of plastic timeline

Burn, Bury or burden the poor

Because they couldn’t recycle most plastic – the industry started selling our waste to China in the 1990s. A tiny amount that could be recycled or repurposed would be – the rest to could be burned polluting the sky (hence overcast china..) , buried in illegal landfills or simply thrown into the sea.

China only finally stopped taking most imported plastic waste in 2018 – so damaging was the problem to the countries health. But other less robustly governed countries in Africa and Asia have quickly been burdened with the waste as the world runs out of space to store its everlasting plastic.

And if you think ‘bioplastics’ are better in terms of disposing or recycling – remember they only biodegrade if they end up in the right conditions to form the exact right type of compostable waste – don’t believe us – try putting it in your domestic composting, which isn’t usually up to the job. Its just another wheeze by the same companies that stamped recycle on non-recyclable PET bottles.

history of plastic pollution

The Regeneration Generation

So here we are – I won’t asked if you enjoyed the journey – starting with a noble idea of using a new wonder material which would leave the wilds wild and bring in a new age of affordable everlasting tools and gadgets – and ending with low-lifespan items, that after their little time of  use cause untold harm for a eternity in the environment. Doom and gloom right?

Well maybe not. 

Recycled plastic items – although difficult to make and therefore expensive – are now what we want in the 21st century. This story shows us that over time we’ve been growing in our care for the fellow forms of life – from early worries over elephants and turtles to todays conscious concern for the planet.

We’ve learned that the solution to the plastic problem will be a cultural, social and political one – rather than repeating our mistakes and relying on a technological fix from those giants of industry who benefit from the status quo.

The way forward is changing how we see objects all together – ending throwaway culture. We can move away from single-use and low-use items altogether – not just swapping the materials they are made from – and banning the most lethal form of plastics – including our nemesis large-scale commercial fishing gear that is designed to kill.

We at Behaviour Change Cornwall when dealing with the legacy plastics we find in the ocean – try to seek inspiration from the first plastics — where beautifully designed combs, radios and telephones were desirable long-lasting products that you valued and kept for a lifetime. 

Support us on our mission to clean up Cornwall's coast