Is Plastic the Bad Guy?


What is Plastic?

The term Plastic (think "plasticity") means malleable or pliable. Plastic is now more commonly used to refer to synthetic or semi-synthetic substances made from polymers*. In the last 150 years, people have made synthetic polymers from naturally occurring materials, but more commonly from readily available carbon atoms in fossil fuels including petroleum. The length of these polymers, and their recurring pattern, is what makes them lightweight, impervious to water, durable, and flexible. i.e. It's what makes them "plastic". It's these properties alongside the low cost and ease of manufacture, that have made plastics useful and popular over the last 50 years, and caused the saturation of synthetic plastics in our world and daily lives.


*Polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, and can include naturally occurring, renewable materials like cellulose (which make up plant cell walls) and polylactic acid from corn.


Biodegradable plastics undergo environmental degradation. This includes breakdown from exposure to sunlight, water, wind, enzymes, bacteria, and attack by rodents and insects. Biodegradable additives in the plastic enhance bio-degradation by attracting microorganisms that utilize the carbon, within the polymer, as a source of energy. However, this does not lead to the complete breakdown of the plastic.


Bioplastics are sustainably produced from plant materials such as cellulose and starch.



Plastics, the Environmental Saviour

John Wesley Hyatt invented the 1st synthetic plastic in 1869 in response to a $10,000 offer by a New York firm for a substitute material for ivory. A growing demand for billiard balls (used in cue games such as snooker or pool) had placed an increasing strain on the supply of natural ivory acquired by the slaughter of wild elephants. Hyatt crafted the first industrial plastics and made them to imitate natural materials such as tortoise shell, linen, horn and ivory.


As nature's resources are limited, this invention was considered revolutionary. Hyatt's plastic would ease demand on natural materials, and manufacturing would no longer be restrained by the limits of nature. Hyatt's development was heralded as the saviour of tortoises and elephants: Plastics would protect the natural environment and meet human needs, without the burden of environmental destruction.


The 1st fully-synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. This plastic, called "Bakelite", would contain no molecules naturally occurring in nature. Bakelite was created as a good electrical insulator that was durable, heat resistant, and suitable for mass production to meet the rapid movement towards the use of electricity.


Fueled by the success of Hyatt and Baekeland's polymer inventions, chemical companies invested heavily in the creation of new plastics with new properties. The new plastics were not created with specific uses or characteristics, but rather with the intention of assigning a function and purpose to them post-creation. This was followed by a boom in the USA during WWII when a 300% increase in plastic production was seen as the material demonstrated its flexibility in numerous ways. New uses for plastic included Plexiglas aircraft windows, Nylon parachutes, ropes, and helmet liners. The surge in production would continue after the end of the war and today we find plastics incorporated in to everything from packaging, toys, automobiles, furniture, information and communication technology, building applications including plumbing and electricals, and many uses in the medical field. Plastics also prevailed over many traditional products that used natural materials.


Plastics lifted pressure off limited natural resources and became an essential material that reduced the cost of living, increased access to better living conditions including housing, safe access to water and electricity, and improved medical care.



In the year 1950, an estimated 2 million tonnes of plastic was produced.

Since then, the world has produced approximately 6,300,000,000 tonnes of plastic

with over 300 million tonnes produced in 2015.**




...& The Fall from Grace

Plastic is no longer viewed as univocally positive. Plastic waste was first discovered in ocean debris in the 1960s raising concerns on the impact of plastics on the environment. Many plastics are single-use and disposable, yet plastics continue to remain in the environment forever. As awareness increased on plastic pollution, and concerns on the impact on human health began to mount, the popularity of plastics began to plummet. The plastic industry offered recycling as a solution and led an influential drive for municipalities to collect plastic waste. The 1st recycling plant was opened in 1972 for residential plastic waste, and by 1986 the 1st US city mandated recycling. Recycled plastics were incorporated in to furniture, packaging, and by 1993 recycled plastic bottles were used to create soft durable fabrics and outdoor clothing. By 1997, recycled plastics were used to create food-grade products like