Around 150 years ago, the elephants of the world were being hunted to extinction. The reason? The need for high-quality ivory needed to make billiard balls for that gentleman's game. The rising price of ivory threatened the entire industry, and in 1863 a billiard ball supplier offered a reward of $10,000 in gold (equivalent foot about $175,000 at today's prices) to anyone who could come up with a good substitute. A printer by the name of John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge, and started experimenting with nitrating various materials. What he came up with was nitrocellulose, a touch, flexible material that his creative brother named Celluloid. Celluloid proved a boon not only to billiard ball makers (and not incidentally, to elephants) but also to hawkbill tortoises. The were also threatened, their sturdy shells being the raw material for the sort of elegant combs that respectable women of the day wore in their hair- if they could afford them. Celluloid combs, mirrors, and other feminine accessories quickly flooded the market. Celluloid collars for men's shirts quickly displaced expensive linen ones. The era of synthetic materials had begun.
The second generation of synthetics came around 1907, with the accidental discovery of what was to become the first of the thermosetting plastics: Bakelite. Invented as a synthetic replacement for shellac in electrical insulation, Bakelite's toughness and ease of molding quickly found a home in telephone sets, radio cabinets, pipe stems, kitchenware and more. It could easily be tinted with the new synthetic dyes, producing the brilliant plastic Catalin radio sets of the 1930s. Unlike celluloid, which was seen as a substitute for natural materials, Bakelite was something new- a synthetic that had properties that simply weren't found in natural materials. It allowed for the creation of objects that simply weren't possible before.
World War Two saw an explosion in the production of various plastics- nylon, for parachute canopies, replaced the silk that was no longer obtainable from Japan and China. Teflon was invented to line the tubes of uranium processing plants to protect against the corrosive effects of uranium hexaflouride gas. GIs went to war with nylon combs. And tons of Bakelite went into electrical switches, instruments, and munitions. After WWII, the plastics industry exploded on to the consumer market. Industrial capacity for the creation of plastics resins and the invention of production technology made possible a raft of consumer products never before seen. And a population starved for consumer goods was ready to buy. Plastics showed up everywhere. Car seats, dashboards, exciting new furniture designs, refrigerator shelves, table radios, and the new synthetic fabrics flooded the market.For someone growing up in the 1950s, plastic was the symbol of the future- a space-age material that mad the impossible possible.
It wasn't just consumer goods. Industry and medicine discovered the wonders of these new materials. Disposable syringes and needles meant an end to the threat of cross contamination. Plastic tubing and bags made possible the heart lung machine, kidney dialysis, plasma separation, and bags that could be used to carry blood components into remote places of onto the battlefield. Surgeons were using synthetic suttees in place of silk and gut, and sewing synthetic patches onto damaged arteries.
But by the late 1960s, plastic was beginning to lose some of its shine. The new plastic consumer goods were so cheap, it didn't pay to fix them- you just threw them away. And discarded plastics were starting to pile up. Not just in dumps, but in parks, on beaches, in the ocean, and- well, everywhere. The invention of the PET plastic drinks bottle resulted in millions or billions of plastic bottle being discarded everywhere. What made it worse was that these bottle lasted pretty much forever. The new ecology movement started to see plastics as one of the great evils of human society, and if you were a hipster in the late 60s, just about the worst adjective you could apply to a person or thing was "plastic."
The oil shortages of the 1970s were another nail in plastic's coffin. Bakelite is still around, but the great majority of synthetics today come from compounds found in oil- a byproduct of the automative age. Author Freinkel relates an apocryphal story in which John D. Rockefeller, seeing ethylene waste gas burning off from open of his refineries, ordered his employees to find a use for it. Whether of not the story is true, ethylene gas is the raw material that goes into polyethylene, HDPE, LDPE, PET (the material soft drink bottles are made of) and much more. The plastics industry today accounts for roughly 10% of total US oil consumption.
Then in the 1990s came another concern. It seems that some of these wonder materials contain plasticizers and other components that can be leached out by heat or water. Some of these components mimicked natural endocrines found in humans and other animals. Discarded plastics were being identified as a possible cause of mutations found in frogs. The same plastics used help save premature babies might also be responsible for giving them cancer years later.
And thus began the latest plastics revolution- the creation of synthetic materials, ideally made from plant materials, that would biodegrade, and return to the ecosystem. In a sense, this was the industry coming full circle, since many of the first synthetics (cellulose, Rayon) were made from natural materials. But now materials scientists are genetically engineering bacteria to produce large quantities of new synthetics, tweaking the properties of naturally found materials. Everyone is now looking for something cheap, natural, and biodegradable, with no toxicity and zero net carbon debt.
There's much, much more to the story than I've outlined above, and author Susan Freinkle does a first rate job of relating everything from the technical issues to the social consequences of the plastics industry over the last century. Despite a few small errors (i.e., she says that nitrocellulose was "briefly" used as a "gunpowder substitute" when it's actually the main constituent of gun propellants today) she does a very good job of relating the technical issues in a non-technical way, and unlike some authors she does not neglect the economic issues that need to be dealt with. There's much to be learned here, all of it related in a manner that makes for compelling reading.