Life in Plastic: The History & Impact of Synthetic Compounds

When the father of chemical ecology, Thomas Eisner, said “Every single new idea in chemistry has come not from the minds of chemists, but from nature...”, we doubt he had bulletproof vests, Barbie dolls, and other plastic applications in mind. But, the late chemist’s words provide us with a foundation for finding inspiration for even the most remarkable of breakthroughs - our own backyard. 

While some see nature as an escape from technology, people like engineers and chemists see the natural world as the key to unlocking new technologies. Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, was inspired to develop a synthetic fiber after observing the tensile toughness of spider’s silk. George de Mestral’s “A-Ha!” moment for Velcro came from a tenacious burr that stuck to his pants on a hike through the mountains. While de Mestral and Kwolek’s inventions may appear disparate, both are made of the same naturally-inspired category of materials called “synthetic polymers”-  or, because we’re not all engineers here, “plastic”. 

Polymers are a long chain of carbon-based molecules (or monomers) most commonly found in nature as cellulose, the material that comprises a plant’s cell wall. Over the last 150 years, engineers have replicated these polymers into plastics using carbon-rich oil that arrange monomers into a near infinite number of configurations. Plastics can be molded to form any shape and some are even capable of withstanding scorching temperatures, corrosive chemicals, speeding bullets, and even decay. 

 
Most plastics begin their journey as small pellets before being shaped into the products we use today.

Most plastics begin their journey as small pellets before being shaped into the products we use today.

 

The Garden of Plastic Eden

The first man-made iteration of plastic can be traced back to Alexander Parks, who unveiled his accomplishments to an exhibition crowd of Londoners in 1862. The eponymous material, Parkesine, was developed from cellulose and, when heated, could be molded into a shape that could retain its form once cooled. In 1869, a global ivory shortage threatened the growing popularity of cue sports that required ivory to produce billiard balls. Forced to face the elephant in the corner pocket, a New York firm placed an offer of $10,000 (equivalent to about $184,850 in 2019) for anyone who could provide a substitute. Enter John Wesley Hyatt, who pioneered the material celluloid. This synthetic plastic could be made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, wood, and ivory - a brand new ballgame, indeed. 

While Hyatt’s motivations may have been selfish in nature, his discovery made waves as the vehicle for humans to break free from dependence on natural resources. Even a promotional pamphlet for the new material by the Albany Billiard Ball Company proclaimed plastic’s utopian potential to 19th century activist consumers, “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so too has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.

Hyatt’s innovation would not be the last. Over the next 60 years, the public saw waves of new polymer compounds and plastic applications. The first synthesized Polyvinyl Chloride (or PVC) was invented in 1872 by Eugene Bauman, although it’s rigidized form for commercial production would not come until Walter Sermon of BF Goodrich in 1926. Sermon’s discovery would pave the way for plastic bottles, food trays, insulation, window panes, blood bags and the piping that bears its name. In 1894, Charles Frederick Cross and Edward John Bevan developed the material viscose rayon, a synthetic fiber now used for drapey summer dresses, lingerie and artificial velvet. 

Later on, in 1907, Leo Baekeland set out to find a suitable replacement for shellac, a resin made from secretions of the female lac bug (“she-lac”) that was commonly used to insulate electrical wiring and was facing a natural shortage. After some trial and error, he invented Bakelite, the first fully-synthetic plastic (meaning it contained no molecules found in nature). This phenol-formaldehyde resin was able to be molded into any form from telephone casings, pipe stems, buttons, to saucepan handles. 

 
Bakelite Jewel Quality Colors.jpg
 

The Means to a Bend

According to Eric Beckman of Fast Company, plastic’s time to shine arrived at the onset of WWII as the need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. This all started in 1935 when Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist at DuPont, created the synthetic compound known commonly as nylon. Although the military’s usage of nylon for parachutes, ropes and body armor would become Carothers legacy, the functional fiber lacked one vital step before its widespread adoption - sex appeal. So, instead of launching nylon as a modern scientific marvel, DuPont’s marketing team saw an opportunity in the wartime shortage of silk and put a sock in it. At the World’s Fair in 1939, DuPont’s Don Draper, Charles Stine, introduced nylon as the stocking of tomorrow with a parade of women touting the tactical garment “as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web”. 

DuPont ultimately laughed its way to the lingerie department (and the bank), selling 64 million pairs of stockings to American consumers in its first year on the market. The seemingly unlimited applications and inexpensive cost of production of silicon polymers drew attention from nearly every industry imaginable, begging for their own slice of the plastic pie. Nylon, along with the introduction of plexiglass for aircraft windows, led to a 300% increase in US plastic production by the end of the war. While further advancements in manufacturing, technology, medicine, and aerospace led to the discoveries of styrofoam, teflon and others, America’s honeymoon period with plastic ended prematurely once they realized that “til death do us part” could last as long as 450 years.

Hoarders: Planet Earth Edition

In the 1960s, the first observances of ocean debris, oil spills, and the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire sparked a flashpoint that forced Americans to reexamine their role in the synthetic heaven they helped form. Increased awareness in the seemingly immortal nature of plastic led a push for a solution as well. In fact, every last piece of plastic ever to be manufactured has yet to begin the decomposition process. 

 
 

In 2015, Biologist Christine Figgener recorded a graphic video of her team removing a 4-inch plastic drinking straw from the nose of a sea turtle. The video resurfaced on social media in 2018 and a deafening viral uproar emerged from the shellshock, calling for the proverbial “cancellation” of plastic straws. Corporations like Starbucks made a pledge to phase out all plastic straws by 2020, and even its hometown of Seattle became the largest US city to ban them. 

Detractors to the outcry see it as a futile attempt to chip away at mountains - plastic straws only making up 0.025% of the 8.0 million metric tonnes of plastic flowing into earth’s oceans. However, that tiny percentage is equal to the weight of twenty Eiffel Towers worth of drinking straws, or 200,000 metric tonnes - a staggering statistic in and of itself. 

The plastics industry initially led a drive to encourage municipalities to incorporate collections and processing into their waste management services that we still have in effect today. Although, current consumption measures may not be enough to stop further damage unless we take control of our disposal practices. By the year 2050, "plastic production is expected to have tripled and will account for a fifth of global oil consumption." But, despite the plastic predicament we’ve found ourselves in, our addiction cannot simply be solved cold turkey. 

Plastic Times Call for Drastic Measures 

Synthetic polymers are critical to sustaining modern life. Where would we be today if planes, trains and automobiles were still manufactured from wood and canvas? Everything from insulation to insulin needles, cell phones, protective headgear and prosthetic limbs are all applications that many Americans take for granted. Just as we made strides in material innovation with Carothers, Baekeland, and even Parks before him, scientists are developing ways to make plastics safer and more sustainable. 

 
shutterstock_1116682028.jpg
 

Globally, research shows there will be an increase in the market value of plastic recycling, which is expected to reduce the negative impact of plastics on the environment. Compared to $31.5 billion spent in 2015, the market value is expected to reach $56.8 billion by 2024. Drawing inspiration from the very natural world that spawned synthetic polymer innovations, Bioplastics currently being made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels will be more environmentally friendly than their conventional counterparts, and others will be wholly biodegradable.

The early scientists who invented synthetic polymers envisioned the use of plastics to be a reprieve from reliance on earth’s natural resources. In doing so, we came to rely on a double-edged sword that satisfies our material needs, but causes great harm to the environment. By investing in bioplastic innovation and the continued recycling of our synthetic surplus, our new batch of pioneers have gone back to the drawing board to fully realize the dreams of their predecessors  - shaping a more sustainable world for the future. 

This piece is powered by Wonder, an on-demand knowledge service that allows you to gain unique insights to any question in as little as 24-48 hours.
Check out the original research here.

Mitchell Kramer