The history of plastic may be short, but its growth is incredible. Here is a brief history of plastic, from its origins to its modern-day abundance and indispensability.
It seems like our lives today are surrounded by plastic. Everywhere we go in the world, from remote deserts, cities, and oceans, there is plastic – to plague proportions in some areas. Plastic has revolutionized the way that we live our lives, making life easier in many ways. Unfortunately, it’s also gotten to the point that it’s fouling our water, polluting our land, and harming wildlife. With the ubiquity of plastic now, it’s hard to imagine a time when none existed even though it wasn't actually that long ago...
Plastic's Time In History Is Quite Short
Planet Earth has been around roughly 4.5 billion years. Modern humans have been walking this world for only about the last 200,000 years - a long time, but not that long in the big picture.
Now, consider how long plastic has been around. Plastic was first termed and invented only about 100 years ago. It still took some time until it became abundant and commonly used. Today, there are many different types of plastic that are used for a huge range of purposes – from bottles to components of electronics.
Thus, the history of plastic only covers about the last 100 of human's 200,000 years of existence on Earth.
Early Experiments In Plastic
Before the fully synthetic stuff we call “plastic” was invented, there were a few people experimenting and making things out of plastic-like natural materials.
In 1862, a Brit named Alexander Parkes made “Parkesine” from cellulose found in plant cell walls. He was looking for a cheaper alternative to rubber, but costs of development kept this material from taking off.
In 1865, American John Wesley Hyatt developed Celluloid, initially used to make billiard balls (previously made of ivory), and to replace costly natural products like tortoiseshell combs. Celluloid proved to be flammable (which could be a problem when the billiard balls struck each other), and its popularity therefore diminished.
In 1907, a Belgian-American chemist named Leo Baekeland patented the first fully synthetic plastic, “Bakelite”. Bakelite was made of formaldehyde and phenol under controlled pressure and temperature, and impregnated on wood and asbestos fibers. Bakelite was used to make phones, letter openers, switch plates, radios, buttons and countless other things. In WWI it was widely used in electrical systems
PVC Created In 1920 And The Word ‘Plastic’ Coined In 1925
1920 - PVC was created.
1925 - the term “plastic” was coined
1931 - Plexiglass was invented, and became an instant success
1946 - after the end of WWII, chemists around the world experimented and improved on formulas for plastics, making Bakelite and Catalin obsolete
1948 - ABS was invented, now used widely in Legos, musical instruments and heaps of other items
1954 - Styrofoam became available
1965 - Plastic bags were first invented, though not widely used until 1985; it took until 1995 for them to be used more commonly than paper
1970s - bottled water started becoming popular, initially in 5-gallon jugs used traditionally in office spaces
1980s - major US cities started curbside collection programs for plastics and other recyclables
1990s- soft drink companies Pepsi and Coca-Cola began riding a health -conscious wave and started selling water bottled in plastic (Aquafina and Dasani)