IN THE BEGINNING
When I began researching the history of plastic, I didn’t have a lot of grand expectations. Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting to find anything that interesting. I didn’t think it would be particularly boring either, I just thought I’d be reading a relatively straightforward timeline of progressively better plastics being invented over time. In retrospect, I should have known better. Science, and life, never work that way; there are always interesting and bizarre backstories.
I recognized a shift had occurred somewhere in the past moving us from a period of traditional materials like glass, metal, and ceramic to one in which plastic dominated. At some point we entered the Plastic Age. Yet I never fully considered why, when, or how this happened. When and why did nylon become popular? Or when and why did food cans become lined with plastic? And why were sturdy metal and wooden toys swapped for plastic ones? And why in God’s name are plastic bags everywhere? Since things tend to make more sense when we know the backstory, I began to research and to read all about plastic. I wanted to know why, when, and how the planet became so plasticized that writing this books is even a possibility.
Before we try to understand exactly what happened here, it may be instructive to focus on where we are now, and how extremely full of plastic society is. It’s tremendously difficult to convey the ubiquity of plastic in our lives, but I think this paragraph from the Society of the Plastics Industry Web site does so in a remarkably concise manner (www.plasticsindustry.org). I should also add that if I’m doing my job well, this little paragraph should hold a different meaning if you were to read it at the conclusion of this book. Anyway, here’s what they have to say:
Plastics have developed an amazing presence in our lives. From the most commonplace tasks to our most unusual needs, plastics increasingly have provided the performance in products that consumers want. In fact, if you woke up tomorrow and there were no plastics, you would be in for quite a shock. Life would be much more expensive and much less comfortable. And many of the conveniences you had come to take for granted would be gone. Mostly, though, you would be surprised at the many products that had vanished—things you had never thought of as being plastic.
There was a time when that passage wouldn’t have meant much to me. I’d likely have read it and thought “OK, sure,” and carried on about my business. But, now I see the entire story of our relationship with plastics tucked neatly within that paragraph. In the two weeks I spent without purchasing anything plastic or generating any plastic waste I gained a new sense for the enormous role plastic plays in our daily life. One thing’s for sure—we most certainly take it for granted. If you woke up tomorrow and there was no plastic, not only would you be shocked, you’d also wake up on the floor because your mattress and box spring likely contain plastic components.
Reading that statement from the Society of the Plastics Industry also poses an excellent question: If I traveled back in time, how far back would I need to go in order to wake up in a world where plastic isn’t a part of my daily life?
What’s incredible is that you don’t have to go very far back in history to find yourself in a society that is free of plastic, or at least so free of plastic you wouldn’t recognize it.
The invention of plastic sort of occurred in the year 1862, when a British man by the name of Alexander Parkes debuted a little something he called Parkesine at the International Exhibition in London. The reason I say that plastic was sort of invented in 1862 is because Parkesine was not a fully synthetic polymer, so it wasn’t a fully synthetic plastic. Rather, it was made by mixing cellulose, an organic polymer, and also the major component in plant cell walls (it’s what makes them rigid), nitric acid, and a solvent (basically a substance that dissolves something). The mixture could be heated, molded, and cooled into various shapes and was the first polymer producible in different colors without the application of dyes or a surface finish. Although this sounds pretty commonplace now, it was an enormous deal at the time, and Parkes seemed to know it. He did a fine job singing the praises of his new material in the leaflet he created for display along with some specimens at the International Exhibition. Parkes does a better job selling his product than I ever could, and his flowery language perfectly describes just how fantastically wondrously amazing Parkesine was for the time:
A new material … now exhibited for the first time … the numerous purposes for which it may be applied, such as Medallions, Combs, Knife Handles, Boxes, Pens, Penholders. It can be made Hard as Ivory, Transparent or Opaque, of any degree of Flexibility, and is also Waterproof; may be of most Brilliant Colours, and has stood exposure to the atmosphere for years without change or decomposition.
Parkes wasn’t the only one who thought his new material was something special. In fact, Parkesine ended up fetching the medal for “excellence in product” at the 1862 International Exhibition and is considered by many to be the first plastic. It represented a groundbreaking advance in polymer science and a major expansion in the role people saw for polymers in society and industry.
Parkes had another telling thing to say about Parkesine, that it was “partaking in a large degree of the properties of ivory, tortoiseshell, horn, hardwood, India rubber, gutta percha, etc., and which will, to a considerable extent, replace such materials…”
Prior to the invention of Parkesine (and for some time after) many of plastic’s current roles were filled by natural polymers like ivory, tortoiseshell, and the other materials Parkes mentioned in the above quote. In fact, there was a whole profession centered on boiling, grinding, flattening, cutting, and molding things like cattle horns, hooves, and tortoise shells into everyday items like combs, spoons, and lantern windows. “Horners” were the people who made horns into other stuff by peeling the horns along natural growth lines and making thin sheets of horn that could then be made into those lantern windows, spoons, and combs by layering sheets together until a desired thickness was reached and then molding and cutting them to shape. Because hooves, cattle horns, and tortoise shells are natural polymers, they are by definition “capable of being molded, extruded, cast into various shapes and films, or drawn into filaments and then used as textile fibers.” They were also strong and lightweight and didn’t shatter, but these natural polymers had their own set of problems, mostly deriving from the fact that these materials aren’t uniform, which made production of each individual item a painstaking process. Massachusetts comb makers did invent some automated machinery to help ease the process, but it failed because each individual cattle horn had a different thickness, consistency, and flexibility. Machine settings might work for one piece of horn, but not necessarily work on the next, which resulted in a lot of broken combs and broken machinery.
Horns, tortoise shells, and hooves weren’t the only natural polymers regularly used in roles filled by plastics today. There are other even more bizarre examples, like shellac. Most people think of shellac as a coating you paint on wood to keep it from rotting (which it is), but it’s also a natural polymer. It was first used in India and eventually brought to Europe in 1290 by Marco Polo after his travels through Asia. Shellac comes from the insect Kerria lacca (also known as the lac bug). Specifically, shellac comes from its butt in the form of a secretion, which is also called lac. Lac is used as a coating for candies, like jelly beans, and in cosmetics, like lipsticks. And while eating or applying secretions from the rear end of an insect to your lips might strike you as disgusting, it’s benign, and far less disgusting and disturbing than the chemicals modern plastics are capable of leaching into your food and drink.
Shellac, however, wasn’t the easiest thing to harvest and produce. It needed to be scraped and separated from the bark and branches of the tree where the female lac bug eats and continually secretes the stuff, forming a tunnel, or cocoon-like structure. It can then be mixed with alcohol to form liquid shellac, which is applied to surfaces as a shiny protective coating. Solid shellac can be heated, molded, and used in making buttons, nobs, and phonograph records. Despite its range of uses and persistence into the modern era, shellac had its shortcomings. As was true of cattle horns and tortoise shells, the problems were related to a lack of uniformity and variations in color over time. Uniformity and durability were the ultimate goals when it came to plastic.
Despite not being a fully synthetic plastic, Parkesine overcame the uniformity issues associated with variations in the quantity and quality of traditional natural polymers. And while this was a major step forward in plastic production, Parkesine didn’t hang around on the plastics scene for very long. The Parkesine company bombed in 1866 due to poor product quality resulting from Parkes’s efforts to keep the costs of Parkesine artificially lower than the cost of rubber, another natural polymer.
Rubber, a natural latex, comes from trees. Specifically from the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Natural rubber is collected from trees by tapping them and collecting it as it runs out, much like maple syrup. In 1823 Charles Mackintosh received a patent for waterproof clothing using natural rubber. Unfortunately, natural rubber is super sensitive to temperature change, and the jackets basically melted when it was hot and turned incredibly stiff when it was cold. However, with a just a little tweaking through a process called vulcanization (the addition of little sulfur), natural rubber can overcome many of its shortcomings. Vulcanization was discovered by Charles Goodyear in 1839 and greatly expanded the functionality of rubber. But natural rubber, vulcanized or not, has its limitations, especially with respect to color, as it comes only in black or very dark brown and therefore can’t mimic or replace the tortoiseshell and horn products that everyone was used to. Do you see the theme here? This is yet another instance where a natural polymer is good, but problems with production, color choices, or uniformity prevented industry from taking it to a level of mass production across many products. So even with the vulcanization of rubber, industry would remain on the hunt for a consistent and cost-effective polymer to perform well in new products and as a substitute for difficult-to-process natural ones. Especially for use in billiard balls.
While his company may have bombed and Parkesine didn’t turn out to be the magical product everyone was in search of, Parkes did succeed in a sense, because Parkesine kicked off the plastic party that’s still raging today.
The first person to show up to that party was a guy named John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt (and others, I’m sure) were driven, at least in part, by a ten-thousand-dollar purse offered by a New York City billiards company in the 1860s. The company was interested in finding a synthetic substitute for billiard balls, which at the time were made from ivory. The source of ivory, as you know, is elephant tusks, of which there is not an infinite supply. Hyatt pursued a new material, eventually inventing and patenting celluloid in April of 1869. His patent focused directly on the production of a new billiard ball, stating:
The object of my invention is to produce a composition which is adapted for being molded into a variety of useful forms … will serve as a good substitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard-balls, and balls or articles of various descriptions, hardness and elasticity …
Celluloid, a mixture of nitrocellulose, camphor, and alcohol, was very similar to Parkesine, and Hyatt even credited Parkes during a lecture in 1914, saying that celluloid was not truly his own invention.
Despite filing the patent and successfully creating a synthetic billiard ball, it seems that Hyatt was never awarded his ten-thousand-dollar prize by the billiards company. The closest thing I have found to an explanation for this appeared in the March 17, 1940, edition of The Spokesman Review, and it wasn’t much of an explanation at all, reading, “What happened to the $10,000 prize no one seems to know. In the long struggle to perfect celluloid the prize was apparently overlooked.” Prize or no prize, Hyatt had high hopes for celluloid. He started both billiard and denture companies hoping to use celluloid as the main ingredient, but unfortunately it didn’t work well in either instance, as celluloid dentures tasted terrible and the billiard balls performed poorly and couldn’t mimic the elasticity of ivory (perhaps another reason he didn’t get his prize money). But celluloid made great film! In fact, it made the early silent films possible and remained the dominant film type until it was replaced by safety film in the 1930s—since it turns out that celluloid had one little problem: it sometimes burst into flame and was ultimately responsible for many theater fires and fatalities.
The first truly synthetic plastic didn’t appear until 1907, when Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland invented Bakelite in his workshop in Yonkers, New York. Time magazine said Bakelite was “born of fire and mystery” and “the plastic of a thousand uses.” Unlike the earlier modified natural polymers, Bakelite was resistant to heat, made an excellent insulator, was lightweight and easily moldable, and could be produced in a bunch of different colors. And guess what else? It made pretty good billiard balls! Bakelite quickly dominated the plastics market and appeared in everything from phones to billiard balls and kitchenware. Turns out Time magazine was pretty much accurate when they called it the “plastic of a thousand uses.”
However, while Bakelite was incredibly popular, its production and usage was a small fraction of the percentage of plastic used today. In fact, prior to the end of World War II people outside of the military didn’t really use plastic. Today annual global plastic production is about 165 times greater than it was in 1950.
In 1950, you didn’t put your food in Tupperware, eat with plastic spoons, drink out of plastic cups, or give your kids LEGOs. Kids played with wooden blocks, sticks, rocks, or maybe balls. So what happened? Why at the end of World War II did everyone go plastic crazy?
During World War II everyone was cranking out wartime plastics, literally millions of pounds of this stuff, partly due to a couple of things—one being that the war itself led the military to greatly increase its production of plastics from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945. As a result plastic found its way into all sorts of products, revealing its many snazzy uses, like contributing to the successful manufacture of the first atomic bomb. Teflon (yes, it’s a plastic) was critical in providing corrosive-resistant materials to handle the volatile chemicals needed in production of the A-bomb during the Manhattan Project. Depending upon what you read and how you think about it, you may even get the sense plastics were responsible for the Allied victory in World War II. Then the war ended. But damn, there were still all these companies producing plastic and all this plastic-production capability. So what to do?
You know who knew what to do? A group of people by the name of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE). First convened in 1942 to “provide and promote the scientific and engineering knowledge relating to plastics,” these folks were totally bummed to see all that plastic potential get tossed by the wayside, so they stepped in to save the day. But they had a major and really interesting hurdle to overcome, which was that plastic products were seen as cheap crappy imitations of products made of traditional materials such as glass, metal, and wood. If you’re old enough, perhaps you remember those solid metal Tonka trucks from your youth. Those things were super sturdy—nothing like the throwaway plastic toys we so often encounter today. People liked sturdy things then; I think people still like sturdy things today, too, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to a buy, break, and replace type of consumerism.
In the middle of the twentieth century, consumers weren’t yet used to the throwaway lifestyle, so the SPE had their work cut out for them. They had to change the public perception of plastic from cheap and crappy to futuristic and marvelous. And they had to do so in a society that didn’t live to consume and throw out products. The SPE focused on a marketing campaign that would wow Americans. Boy, did they really go all out when they held the first National Plastics Exposition. And you’ve got to hand it to them, because their strategy totally worked. The first National Plastics Exposition was held in Grand Central Plaza in New York City in 1946 and featured a whopping 87,000 attendees. The exposition kicked off with a demonstration by the US Navy showcasing their new methods for sealing machinery and weapons with plastic prior to storage. In addition to the Navy, over two hundred other exhibitors were present to highlight their new plastic creations. People were extremely excited by these displays. In fact, so many people attended the conference that it turned into a total fiasco, with long lines resulting in a pushy and unhappy crowd, which, coupled with extreme overcrowding, had the city threatening to shut the event down. I suppose that is a success of sorts. Ever since, the National Plastics Exposition has been closed to the public.
This wasn’t the only grand marketing scheme designed to get everyone jazzed on a plastic future. Ever heard of the company Monsanto? I’m sure you have. Monsanto is the world’s largest biotechnology company and a producer of products like DDT, Agent Orange, and Roundup—a widely used and highly controversial pesticide—and genetically modified seed. Interestingly, Monsanto is also one of the companies responsible for convincing the public that we all need to have plastic everything all the time. More, more, more! While the SPE brought the National Plastics Exposition to the table, Monsanto had their own over-the-top plastic marketing scheme in mind.
In 1957 they decided to construct “The Home of the Future” on a little plot of land in Anaheim, California, not all that far from Disneyland. The Home of the Future was made entirely of plastic and looked very similar to the Jetsons’ house. In the case of Monsanto’s Home of the Future, the future looked a lot like a typical home in 1987. The home made some pretty amazing predictions about modern life. For one, the house contained a microwave oven as the kitchen’s showpiece—an impressive and not so off-the-mark prediction for the time. The home was constructed entirely of plastic, and I mean entirely: plastic ceilings, walls, doors, floors, furniture, and cutlery. And while the modern household isn’t all plastic all the time, Monsanto’s predictions weren’t terribly inaccurate.
Plastics found their way into the daily lives of Americans (and citizens of other countries, too) in countless ways during the mid-twentieth century. Sometimes new plastics resulted in minor changes or the arrival of pleasant new conveniences, while in other instances, the introduction of plastic products had profound societal implications, like helping the Allied Forces to emerge victorious from World War II by contributing to the mass production of parachutes, aircraft parts, helmet liners, bazooka barrels, the A-bomb (as I mentioned), and more.
Discussing all the ways new plastic products affected American culture is a project unto itself, but we can’t call this part “A Brief History of the Brief History of Plastics” without diving into a couple of these stories. Here are my two favorites, which are the stories of nylon and Tupperware. They do a wonderful job of bookending the sweeping changes and downright insanity accompanying America’s blossoming relationship with plastic. Plus, they are both pretty entertaining and even downright weird stories.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael SanClements
Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Julia Suits
MIKE SANCLEMENTS is a scientist at the National Ecological Observatory Network and affiliate of the University of Colorado Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. As an ecologist, his research has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and he has presented at more than a dozen international conferences on ecology and the environmental sciences. His journalism and photography have appeared in The New York Times, Backpacker Magazine, and Grist.org.