New Internationalist

The Polymer Revolution

Issue 415

The first faltering steps that launched the plastic era started about 150 years ago. With the birth of the petrochemical industry after World War Two the plastic age exploded. In a few short decades, by the late 1970s, the global production of plastic had outstripped steel.

1862 Parkesine

The first plastic-like substance débuted at the International Exhibition in London in 1869 when Alexander Parkes announced his discovery – ‘Parkesine’ – a plastic mass which could be moulded by machine into an infinite variety of products. Parkes started with ‘collodion’, a mixture of ether, alcohol and natural cellulose derived from cotton. The result was a jelly-like lotion which he hoped to cast into thick slabs. Unfortunately, the chemicals used to make the collodion
were too expensive, his financial backers got cold feet and Parkes’ enterprise went into receivership a few years later.

1869 Celluloid

The search for imitation ivory billiard balls sparked the next big plastic discovery – celluloid. In upstate New York John Wesley Hyatt attempted to surround a wooden ball with collodion, the same mixture that Parkes had used. It was a good idea except that the balls exploded on contact. The solution was to add camphor. That made the new material both malleable and tough. Celluloid was the first ‘thermoplastic’: a substance which when moulded under heat and pressure retains its shape. Hyatt went on to make combs, pins, shirt collars and cuffs from celluloid that was dyed to look like ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell. A few years later, in 1888, George Eastman (of Kodak fame) gave celluloid its greatest boost when he turned it into the first flexible film for photographs and movies.

1909 Bakelite

Leo Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant in New York, discovered the first completely synthetic plastic by applying heat and pressure to a mixture of phenol (from coal tar) and formaldehyde (a wood alcohol distillate). Bakelite was the first plastic derived from fossil fuels. It was also a thermoplastic – once it was ‘set’ its form was fixed. Bakelite is virtually indestructible – shatter-proof, chemically stable and resistant to electricity and heat. It was also incredibly useful and very beautiful. Bakelite became the miracle plastic of the Art Deco age. It was turned into radio cabinets, telephones, billiard balls, fountain pens, combs, electric insulators and counter tops. Later it became an essential ingredient in most of the weapons used in the Second World War. In his later years Leo Baekeland became a fervent peace campaigner and eventually sold his company to chemical giant Union Carbide.

1920 Rayon and cellophane

Louis Berniguet developed rayon, a form of modified cellulose (plant matter), in Paris in 1891. But it was the Swiss engineer, JE Brandenberger, who in 1913 perfected a way of rolling rayon into clear viscose sheets which he called cellophane. DuPont snapped up the patent in 1920. Soon cellophane was launched as the first flexible, moisture-proof packaging – initially used to wrap cigars, cigarettes, chocolates and fancy baked goods. Meanwhile rayon, a cellulose-based synthetic fibre, became the first artificial replacement for silk. Du Pont perfected the fabric in 1926 and it soon became a slinky, luminous fashion favourite. By the mid-1930s over 80 per cent of the dresses sold in the US contained some rayon.

1926 Vinyl (PVC or polyvinyl chloride)

Walden Semon was working at BF Goodrich in Ohio, looking for a way of binding rubber to metal when he discovered polyvinyl chloride. But nothing much happened with PVC until the Second World War when natural rubber was scarce. Vinyl was a durable insulator so it was used instead of rubber to coat electrical wire in both ships and aircraft. PVC is extremely toxic, releasing cancer-causing dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants, both in production and disposal. PVC has been linked to a rare form of liver cancer as well as brain cancer, lung cancer, lymphomas, leukemia and liver cirrhosis – 60 per cent of the PVC molecule comes from chlorine. PVC is used in everything from shower curtains and water pipes to auto parts and luggage. More than 60 per cent of it is used in the construction industry.

1935 Nylon and neoprene

The popularity of bakelite sparked a plastic mania. The German scientist, Herman Staudinger, pioneered polymer chemistry in 1920. But it was DuPont chemist Charles Carrothers whose study of long-chain polyesters unlocked the door to a plastic cornucopia. Carrothers found that inserting different elements (nitrogen, oxygen or chlorine for example) in a chemical chain of hydrogen and carbon created endless ‘polymer’ possibilities. By 1935 he’d come up with a tough, new plastic called Fiber 66, eventually dubbed nylon. Unveiled at the 1939 New York Word’s Fair, nylon stockings soon swept the world. Carrothers and his team also came up with neoprene, the first successful synthetic rubber. But their biggest discovery might have been the revolutionary synthetic textile, polyester, now a backbone of the clothing industry.

1936 Polyethylene

At about the same time, two British researchers at ICI, R Gibson and E Fawcett, heating ethylene in a pressurized cooker, stumbled across polyethylene (also called polythene) now one of the most world’s common plastics. It was the first plastic to sell more than a billion pounds a year in the US and more of it is produced yearly than any other kind of plastic. Polyethylene is used for everything from soft drink bottles and milk jugs to grocery bags and storage containers for food.

1949 Tupperware

The post-War years saw an explosion in plastic consumer goods. Polyvinylidene chloride (also known as plastic wrap or cling film) was trumpeted as the modern way to wrap and store food. Plastic (actually vinyl) replaced shellac in the music business when long-playing records were launched in the late 1940s. Meanwhile, in Vermont Earl S Tupper bought some used plastic moulding machines and some polyethylene pellets from DuPont and soon produced his first Tupperware bowls. The rest is history. Sales of Tupper’s miracle kitchenware boomed. In 1959 he sold his company for $16 million, bought himself an island in Central America, and eventually moved to Costa Rica, giving up his US citizenship to avoid taxes.

1950s-60s Plastic mania

The use of plastic skyrocketed as the auto industry moved to the centre of the global economy. In 1955, General Motors unveiled the Corvette, the first car to use plastic in its body panels. Today the average car is 10 per cent plastic. And in Europe the Swiss engineer George de Mestral, intrigued by the burrs in his dog’s coat, eventually came up with a synthetic imitation in 1959. He made it from nylon and called it Velcro from the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). Meanwhile, in the 1960s, New York pop artist Claes Oldenburg fashioned giant hamburgers out of plastic, while in London Mary Quant was designing shiny plastic raincoats.

1970s Toxic fears

With the rise of the environmental movement and the discovery of the deadly impact of DDT and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), serious concerns were raised about the unknown impact of other potentially deadly industrial chemicals. The work of pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson led to the banning of DDT in most Western countries in the 1970s. A few years later PCBs were also phased out when they were shown to cause cancer and damage the immune system. PCBs had been widely used in plastics, rubber, paints and dyes since the 1920s. Forty years later both these chemicals are still found throughout the food chain.

1980-2008 Polar fleece and pollution

The end of the 20th century saw a huge growth in hi-tech plastic gadgets. Dr William DeVries installed the first plastic heart in 1982. Super fibres were also developed. These included polar fleece, a warm, quick-drying fabric made from shredded plastic bottles; ‘breathable’ Gore-Tex (a form of Teflon) which became an essential part of outdoor clothing; form-fitting spandex, de rigueur for serous cyclists; and Kevlar, a light-weight material used to make bullet-proof clothing for police and military.

But environmental and public health concerns are growing. Unsightly plastic pollution, gender-bending chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) as well as cancer clusters near industrial plants have sparked an urgent demand for regulation and reform of the chemical industry.

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