The history and future of plastics

March 10, 2022

The definition of plastic is a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form – according to the definition from Oxford languages.

Plastic originally meant “pliable and easily shaped”. Polymer means “of many parts.” Polymers are made from long chains of molecules. Cellulose is the material that makes up the cell wall of plants – generally known as a natural polymer.

In the last century, we have learned how to make synthetic polymers, sometimes using natural substances like cellulose or using carbon atoms provided by petrol and other fossil fuels. These synthetic polymers are made from long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units – which are longer than those found in nature (cellulose).

This not only makes the properties of synthetic polymers exceptionally useful, but also allows for us to create and manipulate them. Over the last 50 years, plastics have changed the ways in which we live.


In 1869 the first synthetic polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt. Inspired by a New York firm offering $10 000 to anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. Because the popularity of billiards had put a strain on natural ivory through the slaughter of wild elephants. Hyatt discovered that by treating cellulose (obtained from cotton fibre with camphor) plastic could be crafted into many shapes and made to imitate ivory, horns, tortoiseshells, and linen.

For the first time in history manufacturing wasn’t bound by nature; wood, stone, metal, tusks, bone, or horns, but manufactured by humans. The creation of plastic not only helped people but also the environment. At the time, many praised the invention of plastic as it saved the natural world (elephants, tortoises, trees) from human need.

This invention of a new material also enabled people to become free from social and economic constraints and made material wealth more widespread and obtainable.


Fast-forward to 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite (the first synthetic plastic) as a substitute for shellac (a natural insulator) to meet the needs of electricity in the US. Bakelite was a good insulator; it was also durable and heat resistant and suited for mechanical mass production. Back then Bakelite was advertised as “the material of a thousand uses” because it could be shaped and moulded into anything and provided endless possibilities.

Both inventors, Hyatt and Baekeland allowed for huge chemical companies to invest into the research and development of new polymers, where new plastics soon joined.


World War II required a huge expansion of plastics. The need to preserve natural resources made the production of plastic a priority for substitutes: Nylon was invented as a substitute for silk and was used during the war for parachutes, ropes body armour, and more. Plexiglass proved as a better alternative for airplane windows. During this period of history, the production of plastic in the US increased by 300%.

Plastic production continued after the war ended, taking the place of steel in cars, paper, glass and tin as packaging and wood in furniture. The possibilities were endless and abundant, thanks to an inexpensive substitute.


Nowadays, plastic has grown quite the reputation for environmental problems. Yet, despite this mistrust, plastic has made the development of technology (laptops, computers, mobile phones), most of the lifesaving advances of medicine, they have also helped to save fossil fuels used in heating and transportation. Plastics helped to raise the standard of living for all demographics abundant and readily available. Without plastics, many items that we may take for granted might be out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Replacing natural materials with plastic has also made a lot of what we own cheaper, lighter, safer, and stronger.

Plastic holds a valuable place in our lives. Innovators are developing bioplastics (plastics made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels)  to create a more environmentally friendly alternative. Scientists are working towards making plastic completely biodegradable. Some are searching for ways to make recycling easily accessible and efficient and are even aiming to convert plastic back into fossil fuels.

Proving that we all recognise that while plastic is not perfect, it is a necessary and important part of our future.

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