Plastic has evolved enormously over the years to become the material it is today. It is now essential for many industries and has been a constant for several generations, providing solutions to all types of problems. It is hard to imagine world without plastic, as more and more new polymers are created for different applications. This is why SP Group, would like to take you on a journey through the history of plastic, analysing where it began and why it has become so popular in modern society.
THE WORLD BEFORE PLASTIC
As with many technological advances throughout history, plastic was conceived to make some aspects of daily life easier. This means that to fully understand the history of plastic, we first need a glimpse of what the world was like before it was invented. For example, one of the industries that has benefitted most from its use is the agro-food industry. Before the discovery of this material, there were few options for preserving and transporting fruit , vegetables and other food products.
THE AGRO-FOOD INDUSTRY BEFORE PLASTIC
Fresh foods had to be local, and were only available in season, as it was very difficult to prolong their shelf life. Those that could be preserved were dried or tinned. Due to these limitations, fewer products available were available to consumers. Food was also transported in metal tins. As well as being heavy, these tins were not watertight, meaning it was more difficult to transport liquid foodstuffs.
The products also had a much shorter shelf life. Milk was stored in aluminium milk churns and jugs before glass bottles were introduced. The packaging and preservation solutions we are familiar with today arrived with the advent of plastic.
Information on food products was not available like it is today either, as the packaging was obviously not designed to provide consumers with relevant information about products.
THE HISTORY OF PLASTIC: A SOLUTION TO A PROBLEM
Although plastic is commonly used to preserve and package food products today, it was not originally designed for that purpose.
PLASTIC AS A REPLACEMENT FOR IVORY
In 1860, many products were made from ivory. As ivory was in short supply, the company Phelan & Collander started to look for a replacement. They offered a 10,000 dollar reward for anyone who could make billiard balls from a different material.
The winner was John Hyatt, who managed to make celluloid by dissolving cellulose in camphor and ethanol. In fact, his invention was so successful that he started a company that would end up becoming the ‘Celluloid Manufacturing Company’, which, apart from billiard balls, manufactured other items such as dentures and piano keys. This was the first step towards the development of the plastic we know today.
Later, in 1907, the chemist Leo Baekeland developed Bakelite to replace shellac, a material used as cable insulation that was becoming difficult to source. This synthetic resin became known as the father of modern plastic, and it was thermostable, insulating, waterproof, acid-proof and fairly heat resistant.
Based on the work of these two pioneers in chemistry, plastic was developed further, and people soon realised that the possibilities presented by the new material went far beyond just replacing other materials. They saw that plastic was hugely versatile and had a great capacity for preservation, as well as being lighter than other materials, making it cheaper to transport goods, and reducing their impact.
Since then, plastic has become a necessity in our daily life. It is also a key material in sectors ranging from the medical supplies industry (which uses plastic in many of its disposable sterilised products, such as gloves); the automotive industry (where it is used in car bumpers, mud guards, dashboards, etc.) and the construction industry, as well as the food industry and even agriculture (where it is used to make greenhouses).
THE FUTURE OF PLASTIC IS SUSTAINABLE
In spite of recent advances in plastic technology, it was only a few decades ago that the environmental impact of plastic was discovered, and the first attempts at generating sustainable plastic solutions were made.
While we have discussed the origins of plastic, it is also important to talk about the future of the material in terms of consumer opinion and the Law. Both modern consumers and the new Law on waste and polluted soils demand materials that are highly recyclable and made from recycled materials, thereby gradually removing single use plastics from the market.
Interestingly, there is a trend within sustainable plastics that aims to imitate the sustainability of the past while including the advantages of modern plastic. This fusion has led to the development of flexible refillable packaging, which allows rigid containers to be refilled with specific products, thereby reducing the amount of plastic needed for these products.
The future is innovation in the field of sustainable plastic and its use. In this way, we will continue to enjoy the benefits of plastic – including its ease-of-use and excellent preservation properties – while ensuring a greatly reduced impact on the environment.