Plastic: History & Properties

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Plastics are all around you, but how much do you know about this handy invention? This lesson will give a brief history of plastics and discuss some of the properties that make it such a useful substance.

Plastics: Pros, Cons and a Definition

Plastics get a bad rap these days. Of course, this bad rap is at least partially deserved, since plastics are creating an environmental disaster. Somewhere around 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year, and 50% of that is thrown out, burned, recycled or biodegraded (yep, some plastics can biodegrade) within its first year.

Ingredients used in making plastics are even finding their way into your body. For example, bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in plastics that can be ingested, is found in the urine of 95% of adults living in the United States. Furthermore, over eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, which is causing problems for marine life.

But even though plastics are taking a toll on the environment (and maybe your health), they have also improved human life. Plastics are inexpensive to make and have a wide variety of uses, from IV bags to your TV set. Around 85% of medical equipment is made from plastics, and the use of single-use plastic devices has reduced the risks of transmitting diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Lightweight plastics have improved transportation from spacecraft to your car. The list of plastic's benefits is long, but I know, I know, you don't have all day.

So… what are plastics? Plastics are non-metallic versatile materials that can easily be shaped or molded. Even the name ''plastic'' comes from a Greek word meaning ''to mold.''

Delving into the chemistry part (yeah, we have to go there), plastics are polymers, which is science-speak for a big molecule that has repeating units. Each unit is called a monomer. Plastics aren't the only things that contain polymers. Your DNA, for example, is a polymer. So is the cellulose in plants. Even the exoskeleton of bugs, called chitin, is a polymer.

A polymer molecule. Note that the polymer is a bunch of repeating monomers.

So, now that you know a little about plastics, let's check out how they came to be so prevalent in our society!

The History of Plastics

Although the plastic industry has taken off in the last hundred years, humans have been using polymers for centuries. For example, thousands of years ago civilizations in Mexico and Central America discovered that natural latex from plants could be molded into balls or shoes. But let's start our history of plastics in the 1800s.

Alternative to Ivory

During the 1860s there was a shortage of ivory from elephants, which was used in everything from billiard balls to combs. Motivated by this shortage, a billiards manufacturer offered a prize of $10,000 to anyone who could make a suitable substitute. This would not only solve the ivory shortage, it would also prevent elephants from going extinct. Win-win.

John Wesley Hyatt of New York was up for the challenge, so he built a lab in his house and started to experiment. In 1869 he created a new material, called celluloid. It was made, in part, from cotton and could be easily molded, yet it was hard. Unfortunately, celluloid didn't make good billiard balls, so Hyatt never got the $10,000. However, celluloid paved the way for the development of future plastics and it did make a good comb, among other things (like film).


Fast-forward to 1907, when Leo Baekeland invented a new plastic, named Bakelite, which was made out of formaldehyde and phenol. Just as the ivory shortage had led to the development of celluloid, a shortage of a material called shellac led the way for the invention of Bakelite. Shellac, which comes from certain bugs, is used as an electric insulator. A major downside to shellac is that making it takes a whole lot of time (and bugs). In addition to replacing shellac, Bakelite was used to make a bunch of things including radios, washing machines, cars, jewelry, and toothbrushes.

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