How Was Plastic Invented and When?

Plastic is used in packaging, toys, furniture, computers, clothing, just about everything! What on earth were things made of before it was invented?

Plastic Fantastic. There are natural plastics, cellulose is one type, found in cotton. But the first synthetic plastic wasn’t invented until the twentieth century.

In 1862 an English chemist called Alexander Parkes made a mixture of nitrocellulose (an explosive substance made from cellulose and nitric and sulphuric acids), and camphor. He called it Parkesine and it was used to make all sorts of domestic objects.

In 1905 Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist working in New York, mixed phenol (a disinfectant) with formaldehyde (a preservative) and came up with Bakelite, the first completely man-made plastic, which could be moulded into any shape. It was used to make music recordings, telephones, furniture, radios and electrical insulation, among other things.

During the 1920s and 30s, there were lots of important developments in the plastics industry: polythene was invented when an experiment went wrong at the plastics company ICI, nylon began to be used to make clothing, and neoprene (a synthetic rubber), vinyl and Perspex were invented.

Now it’s hard to imagine life without plastic. It’s useful stuff: light, inexpensive, extremely versatile and durable, and there lies the problem. Plastic is very difficult to get rid of because it takes so long to biodegrade. Rubbish tips all over the world are full of it.

Unfantastic plastic: It takes about 450 years for a plastic bottle to biodegrade! 41.5 Recycling the same bottle can save enough energy to light a 60-watt light bulb for six hours and reusing plastic carrier bags could save millions of litres of oil a year.

It can be a maze trying to sort the plastic for recycling because there are so many different types. Recyclable plastic falls into seven categories – figure out which recycle group relates to which types of plastic object, then help organize the recycling at home and school with your detailed knowledge!

Some fancy names for plastic are, Polyvinyl Low Density Chloride Polyethylene Polypropylen Polystyrene Other, High Density, Polyethylene, Polyethylene, Terephthalate.

Plastic is used to make detergent bottles and plastic milk bottles, plastic cutlery, Drink bottles and Bin bags and take-away plastics jars, carrier bags boxes, peanut butter jars, foam cups, Bottle tops and drinking straws, Pipes, shrink wrap, outdoor furniture.

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