The history of plastic - By Alternative Plastics Ltd
Since the beginning of the human race, we’ve tinkered with natural objects and materials to adapt them to our purposes. So the advent of plastic was bound to be an exciting time…
The first man-made substance which could be described as a plastic arrived hot on the heels of the discovery of natural rubber. In 1862, Alexander Parkes proudly showed his new invention to the London crowd at the Great Exhibition: a man-made substance which he called Parkesine. It could be warmed, moulded, and set into almost any shape – what’s more, it was cheaper and easier to produce than rubber. Designed as a commercial rubber substitute, Parkesine was a derivation of cellulose and could even be made transparent. It was a historic landmark in the world of plastics.
Parkes was just one man caught in the rush to create materials that were cheaper and better than natural products like rubber and ivory. In 1866 John Hyatt blended collodion and camphor to create an ivory substitute – celluloid – that would later be used to make billiard and table tennis balls, movie film, and toys. Scientists were searching for man-made replacements for everything from silk to upholstery material. Commercial plastics Bakelite, Nylon, Acrylic, Perspex, and Cellophane soon followed. By now, plastics were playing an increasingly significant role in commercial industry all over the world.
Fast-forward to 1930: after a shaky start, scientists had discovered how to manufacture polystyrene, and moved on to create PVC and synthetic rubber. But it was perhaps the discovery of Polyethylene that was to change the world’s manufacturing forever.
Like all the best inventions, Polyethylene was an accidental discovery. It was created by two scientists attempting to meld ethylene and benzaldehyde. A dramatic reaction between the two caused the test-tube to spring a leak, and the change in conditions caused the compound caused to set. The two substances had, in fact, polymerized – creating polyethylene.
This new plastic, which could be formed into exceptionally thin, light shapes, was full of potential. Turned into wire insulation and lightweight radars, it made itself extremely useful during the War. And now? Polyethylene is possibly the world’s most common plastic: you’ll find it in your fridge as food packaging, as plastic bags, Tupperware boxes, and much, much more.
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