Plastic means ‘pliable and easily shaped’.
In today’s world plastic is generally considered to be a menace, but plastic has become a necessary evil. Plastic has not always meant synthetic or non-biodegradable. Earlier to the synthetic synthesis for making plastic, natural forms were more prevalent. The plastic before the 18th century was wood or the derived cellulose polymer that provides wood its stiffness and durability. In medieval times craftsmen made lantern windows out of translucent slices of animal horn which is also cellulose.
Evolution with Need
With natural reserve of wood, milk (also used to derive cellulose for plastic) and rubber was limited as they needed to be cultivated. Thus, increasing their price. With development in chemical study of cellulose polymer, need for alternate solution became a scope for research. The biggest breakthrough was achieved when the first synthetically derived plastic was made in 1862 using a small quantity of modified cellulose found in nature, It was named ‘Parkesine’ by Alexander Parkes who unveiled it at the ‘1862 Great International Exhibition’ in London. But this had a deficiency which limited its application. This plastic got dissolved when came in contact with alcohol. This creation formed the basis for development of future improved forms which had use in several forms.
With the inception of Parkesine it was realized that synthesis of plastic is not limited by the availability of natural cells. Some of the most impactful creations which followed were –
· Celluloid – in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt in response to New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a low cost substitute for natural ivory.
· Galalith in 1893. It is odorless, insoluble in water, biodegradable and virtually nonflammable material. This is produced in small quantities mainly for buttons.
· Bakelite in 1907 by Leo Baekeland is search for the alternate to natural insulator called ‘shellac’. It was the first fully synthetic plastic, it contained no molecules found in nature. Bakelite was a good insulator and was also durable, heat resistant and most importantly it can be created in large quantities.
· PVC in 1926. It was accidentally synthesized in 1872 by German chemist Eugen Baumann but it was very brittle. Later the B.F. Goodrich Company developed a method in 1926 to plasticize PVC. Thus, making it more flexible and more easily processed material that soon achieved widespread commercial use.
· Nylon in 1935 during World War II, invented by Wallace Carothers as synthetic silk. This was used for parachutes, ropes, armor etc.
· Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET in 1941 by Whinfield and Dickson. For 60% of synthetic fibres and 30% of with bottle production globally PET is used. In textile industry PET is known as polyester.
Today four most produced polymers are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate.
With continuous improvements and addition of properties to the resulting plastic compound the use slowly started replacing generic or natural forms of substances. Common things replaced by plastic are
– Metal forms (as molding plastic in a desired form is easier, cost effective, lighter and some types of plastic have desirable strength) as tanks, pipes, electrical components etc.
– Glass (as plastic is cheap to produce and easy to carry because of less weight, it saves money and energy for transportation) containers, windows etc.
– Natural fiber (as plastic i.e. nylon cuts the cost and time used to cultivate and transport it natural counterparts).
Plastic possesses major problems today but was a solution when it was first developed. Plastic is manufactured with petroleum and other chemical substance like vinyl chloride, phthalates and Bisphenol-A (BPA) in processes that release large quantities of pollution into the air, water, and pollutes soil when left as a land fill waste. Though some newly developed plastics are biodegradable but are not prevalent because of their limited application.
One of the other issue faced now is that options for a replacement product is not available as this single material servers several purpose and natural counterparts like paper, natural fiber, rubber, metals etc. are costly and has higher carbon footprint. Some institutions are working to find a sustainable solution for this issue. For example, the LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre started by the LEGO System for research and development of alternate material for manufacturing of LEGO elements.
If used properly, plastic can be a way to achieve a sustainable future. Banning plastic is not a necessary or a sustainable step until a good alternate is developed. This is because statistically 66% of energy is saved when new plastic products are produced from recycled materials instead of using raw materials.
More importantly, as plastic is derived from fossil fuels, with its depletion and increasing cost the cost of production of plastic will increase. This will also be a positive driving force for a search and development sustainable alternate material.