A brief history of plastics

“In one sense,” Alan Weisman writes in The World Without Us, “plastics have been around for millions of years.” This is because, as Weisman points out, plastics are polymers, or carbon and hydrogen atoms linked together to form chains (148). Man-made plastics, however, are a relatively new development. When Leo Baekland, a Belgian chemist living in Yonkers, NY, mixed carbolic acid–or phenol–with formaldehyde, he found that the combination produced a moldable substance that hardened as it cooled. He christened it Bakelite. The year was 1905.

As new chemical combinations were found that formed different sorts of polymer chains, and increasing number of consumer products made of plastic entered the market. The true blossoming of the plastics industry, however, came after World War II, when the world was revolutionized by the introduction of more and more plastic consumer products, including acrylic textiles, Plexiglas, and cling wrap (Weisman, 149). In 1946, a small company in Leominster, MA, introduced a new product called Tupperware.

The manufacturing of plastic goods today is usually done by melting down what are called plastic resin pellets called nurdles, which are themselves created by reacting petrochemicals such as ethylene with polymer catalysts in order to turn them into polymer chains of various sorts. Plastic nurdles that have escape from shipments end up in…you guessed it! The ocean. Bad news bears.

But why is this a problem? Wouldn’t the nurdles and the plastic bags, and the plastic bottles and bottle caps, etc. simply float around harmlessly in the ocean? Not so fast. One factor is that that additives are usually added to make plastics more pliable or more UV resistant. And even though some toxic additives,  such as those used in PCBs, have been banned since the 1970’s, there is still PCB plastic out there that is slowly leaching highly toxic and hormone-disrupting chemicals into the ocean. Another factor is that nurdles and other plastics, when mistaken for food by marine organisms, can end up clogging their systems and killing them (Weisman,145-155). And, even from a anthropocentric view, this is not good: if plastics are ingested low down on the food chain, these smaller organisms will eventually be eaten by something else, and on up the food chain until you reach, well…you and me.

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