We all know that plastic has become ingrained in the consumerist lifestyle, but by just how much? The short answer: by a lot. Over 300 million tons of the stuff is produced each year globally. To give you an idea of just how large that number really is, imagine 6,000 Titanic’s (that is the weight equivalent!). It’s a staggering figure, and it begs a very simple question: How on earth??!
The truth is plastic had very humble beginnings. The first man-made plastic was invented in 1862 by a man named Alexander Parkes, who showcased his new innovation at London’s Great International Exhibition that same year. Derived from organic cellulose (an important part of the cell wall in green plants), the material was able to be molded at high temperatures and maintain the exact same shape when cooled. Although a novel idea that demonstrated huge potential, the company Parkes founded to mass produce his plastic ultimately failed due to poor product quality.
Clearly, more thought had to be put into producing plastic cheaply and efficiently on a large scale. Less than a decade later, those thoughts had turned into reality. One of the first plastics to succeed on a large scale was developed by John Hyatt, and was named celluloid. The first formula was a flop, but after the addition of camphor (a derivative of the laurel tree), celluloid took off. As time passed, other plastics such as PVC, Cellophane, and Bakelite were developed. Before long, the 20th century was well underway, and new plastic formulas and manufacturing processes became common place.
One of the key influencers that gave the plastic industry a 0-60 that would make most sports cars drool was the fact that most other materials had a very hard time competing with plastic in both ease of mass-scale manufacturing and relative cost. When the first plastic combs came out, the combs of the time just couldn’t compete; made out of ivory or other expensive substances, competition was little more than a dream. Plastic was cheap and made for easy product fabrication.
If we jump back to the modern world, plastic is widely available in many forms. In terms of raw material, plastic tubing, sheeting, and other such products are available in almost every home improvement store in America. In terms of finished consumer products, it is rare to find something with no plastic content. Public schools educate students about the stone age, the bronze age, and the steel age in history class – if the 20th century was given an age, chances are it would be known as the plastic age.