The Story of Plastic: Discovery, Invention, and Practical Use.
History of Plastic: Facts, Stats, and Recycling Information. From taking out the trash to adjusting your seat belt…. how did plastics become such an integral part of our lives? And what did we ever do without them?
It is hard to imagine a day without plastic – from household cleaners to credit cards to computers and even clothing – plastics are more useful and versatile than almost anything else in our daily lives.
To prove just how versatile, the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University has posted the results of a recent study on their website with the following stats:
- The U.S. GDP for plastics and rubber products in 1977 was $16,900,000,000.
- In 2006 that number soared to an astounding $71,400,000,000 (an almost inconceivable 420% jump).
The Story of Plastic, How Its Made, and What It Is
According to the American Chemistry Council on-line, most plastics are based on the carbon atom. (Silicones are exception to this rule.) Although other elements, too, can be involved, such as oxygen, chlorine, fluorine, and nitrogen. For instance, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contains chlorine, while Nylon contains nitrogen; Teflon contains fluorine, and Polyester and polycarbonates contain oxygen.
And when the connections of atoms result in long chains, “like pearls on a string of pearls,” the polymer created is called a thermoplastic. According to the ACC, the vast majority of plastics (about 92%) fall into the category of thermoplastics.
But plastics have changed a lot since the innovative Brit, Alexander Parkes introduced “a material to rival rubber” in 1862, at the Great International Exhibition in London. This material – dubbed Parkesine – was organically derived from cellulos, and, though it never really took off it started the search for a versatile, strong, cheap, and flexible modern multi-tasker.
And, interestingly, it would be the game of billiards that would provide the first opportunity for plastics to shine on a national stage. It seems that during the latter part of the 19th century, the game billiards (balls made of pure ivory) had become so popular that any animal with tusks was severely at risk of soon becoming extinct.
In a rush to find a replacement, John Wesley Hyatt, an American, invented celluloid. And in 1869, and entirely by accident, the first thermoplastic (a substance molded under heat and pressure into a shape it retains even after the heat and pressure have been removed) was born.
The Invention of Synthetic Plastic and Its History
Eventually, the first completely synthetic version of plastic was discovered in 1907. And Rayon, Nylon, acrylic, neoprene, SBR, polyethylene, and other polymers like PVC, SaranTM, and Teflon® were all part of the “plastics craze” of the early an mid-1900s.
But it wasn’t until 1933 that plastics would revolutionize the world, with the invention of Polyethylene by two organic chemists working for the Imperial Chemical Industries Research Laboratory. Indeed, most of what we think of when we think of plastics comes from Polyethylene – soda bottles, milk jugs, grocery and dry-cleaning bags, and plastic food storage containers.
Plastic Information, Facts, and Stats
While it is true that “Poly” revolutionized almost all aspects of modern life, it is notoriously hard to get rid of from a environmental standpoint. This creates a bit of a problem with world-wide plastic consumption at an all-time high, and Earth911 on-line offers some sobering statistics to consider:
- Number of plastic bags used worldwide each year: 4,000,000,000,000 to 5,000,000,000,000.
- Amount of oil used annually to produce plastic bags: 17,200,000,000 to 21,500,000,000 gallons.
- Number of plastic bags used by Americans each year: 110,000,000,000.
- Amount of plastic bags recycled in the United States in 2006: 2%.
- Amount of plastic used worldwide every year just to bottle water: 1,500,000 to 2,700,000 tons.
- Number of plastic water bottles sold in the United States in 1997: 4,000,000,000
- Nearly eight out of every 10 bottles will end up in a landfill.
And that is just the tip of the plastic problem. Most plastics that are made in the U.S. are now made primarily (70 percent) from domestic natural gas and oil, which carries another round of separate but equally disturbing environmental concerns.
But it is not all doom and gloom, and each individual effort to recycle and reduce consumption of plastics helps immensely. By doing our part in using, reusing, and disposing of plastics properly, we can effect great change, as seen by these encouraging stats from The American Chemistry Counsel:
- HDPE and PET bottles showed the highest recycling rates of any plastic bottles types, at 27.1 and 23.1 percent, respectively.
- In recent years, many grocers and retailers have introduced plastic bag collection program.
- More than 80% of U.S. households have access to a plastics recycling program through curbside or community drop-off centers.
The key is to stay informed. Plastics make many modern wonders possible, like new medical procedures, improved automobile safety, and home insulation. Without them, the world would truly be at a loss, but we must also deal with the caveats of creating such a strong, versatile, and resilient material. For more information about recycling efforts in your area, please use the link to the following handy facilities locater from the Recycling Center on-line.
Yes, it is hard to imagine a day without plastic – from household cleaners to credit cards to computers and even clothing – plastics are more useful and versatile than almost anything else in our daily lives.