Before the invention of synthetic plastics, civilizations were using natural materials and natural plastics for means of production. These materials were the main ingredient in producing the majority of all products in the business industry. By being so reliant on natural materials and plastics, consumers were subjected to slow production rates, high prices, poor product reliability, and a high dependence on nature. The materials most common in production prior to synthetics were wood, cotton, silk, ivory, and steal. In addition to these natural materials, consumers also used various natural plastics. Natural plastics are raw materials derived from nature that when heated and put under pressure can be molded into various shapes. The three most common natural plastics are amber, glass, and rubber (Femichell 18). Amber is a fossilized resin that comes from ancient trees. The translucent yellow or brown substance forms from a natural bonding of two or more monomers (Par 1). Amber is warm and will soften, burn and will produce some electric activity (“Welcome to the World of Amber,” Par 2). Although some what fragile, amber is a multipurpose plastic. The most common uses of amber are jewelry, smoking articles, artwork, building material, skin care, and incense. At one time amber was even used as a lint remover because of its ability to conduct electricity (“Uses of Amber,” Par 1). The second most common natural plastic is glass. Glass is created by melting rock at a very high temperature and then letting it cool to form into a solid object. Volcanic eruptions, lightning, or meteorites are the common contributors to making glass in nature (Par 1). Glass is very fragile and has use limitations. Glass products can be traced back to 3500 BC where the Egyptians were melting glass to use as a glaze on pots and vases (“A brief history of glass,” Par 4). Since 3500 BC, glass has been used in making jewelry, artwork, utensils, and architecture. However, the most popular natural plastic is rubber. Rubber is harvested from tropical trees. The most commercial source of rubber is the Hevea brasiliensis. Hevea brasiliensis is native to brazil, however, because of its popularity, it was distributed and grown in South East Asia, Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Thailand, and Africa (Par 1). The tropical tree converts inorganic nutrients and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are what create rubber latex. The rubber latex is then released through the Hevea Brasiliensis tree bark where it can then be scraped and used (“Hevea Brasiliensis: General Description,” Par 5). Natural rubber is best known for its strength, low heat generation, ice traction, resistance to cutting/chipping/tearing, barrier to water pathogens, and spring mobility (“Excellent Properties of Natural Rubber,” Par 2-4). Because of its excellent attributes, natural rubber has been able to be incorporated into various industries. When rubber was first discovered by the Indians, it was used for common products like toys or coating cotton cloth, but as its popularity grew amongst the Europeans so did its usage. The Europeans experimented with natural rubber and discovered that it made great erasers, hospital instruments, rubberized clothing, and tires (Fenichell, 19-26). These experiments were what contributed to the beginnings of synthetics.
The first step towards inventing synthetic plastics was the discovery of the components in the natural materials. Industrial chemist Eduard Simon, a German apothecary in 1839, discovered that rubber consisted of chains of styrene molecules (Par 2). These chains are what allow rubber to be so elastic. Although Simon did not comprehend fully what he had discovered, he was able to apply it to his experiments (Par 3). During his experiments, Simon discovered that when erethylene and benzene were mixed together they created a strong plastic. This plastic is known as polystyrene. Polystyrene can be injected, extruded, or blown into a moldable form (Bellis, “Polystyrene and Styrofoam,” Par 1). Simon’s discovery drove industrial chemist towards the idea of manipulating chemicals to develop plastics. These manipulations led to vulcanized rubber. Vulcanized rubber is the end product of mixing rubber and natural material and/or plastic together. During the 1800’s, industrial chemists were experimenting with vulcanized rubber and trying to find ways to strengthen it. Although some succeeded, vulcanized rubber faltered in many areas. Vulcanized rubber faltered when the temperatures rose too high or fell too low. In the heat, vulcanized rubber would melt into a puddle of goop, and when the temperature fell to freezing, vulcanized rubber would become as hard as a rock. Vulcanized rubber also depended on sulfur for color, which limited industrial chemist to specific mixtures of chemicals (20). Because of these poor qualities vulcanized rubber was unable to obtain a high level of popularity with manufactures. Many industrial chemists believed that plastic was the key to producing a pliable economical product and therefore continued to experiment with the possibilities vulcanized rubber could yield. It wasn’t until 1862, when an industrial chemist by the name of Alexander Perkes, expressed that rubber could never be the key to a pliable economical product. Alexander Perkes experimented first with introducing a variety of chemicals into heated rubber to produce a strong rubber then through his experiments he discovered an organic material that proved to be better than rubber. When mixing cellulose and organic material together, Perkes created a substance that looked like rubber but, according to Perkes, it was better. This substance was later titled Parkisine, the first man-made synthetic. Parkisine was displayed in the 1862 Great International Exhibition in Great Britain. Perkes described Parkisine as being hard as ivory, transparent like water, as flexible as rubber, waterproof, and dye able. In addition to these wonderful attributes Parkisine, Perkes expressed, can also be molded into a solid, plastic, or fluid. Within Perkes’s display at the International Exhibition, were some of his products that he made from his synthetic rubber. His display consisted of buttons, combs, knifes, card cases, and boxes (Fenichell, 18). Perkes is known as the man who laid down the foundation for future industrial chemist in the development of synthetic rubber.
Across the seas in the United States, industrial chemists, John Hyatt and Isaiah Hyatt, were working vigorously to invent synthetic ivory for billiard balls. Ivory was becoming so popular for billiard balls that thousands of elephants were being killed for their tusks (“The History of Plastic,” Par 3). Finally, twelve years after Perkes, the second synthetic was invented. After accidentally spilling a bottle of dry collodion on the floor, Isaiah Hyatt discovered that the transparent film would be the perfect content for a synthetic billiard ball (Fenichell, 40-41). Unfortunately, the Hyatt brother’s synthetic billiard ball was very brittle and would shatter in the course of a game. Not being able to withstand a hit from a billiard stick made the Hyatt brother’s synthetic billiard ball an un-commercialized product (“The History of Plastic,” Par 3). However, despite their failure, John Hyatt was determined to produce a synthetic that would prevail. Through several experiments, Hyatt discovered that by adding various amounts of camphor to nitro-cellulose under heat and pressure would generate a whitish mass that could be used as a soft or hard plastic. Later, Hyatt titled his creation celluloid, the first thermoplastic in history (Fenichell, 42). Soon, products like waterproof clothing, dentures, sporting goods, jewelry, synthetic ivory, and movie film were taking over the market (Par 6-11). Celluloid proved to be very pliable and economical, however, it burned easily and over time it was subjected to cracking and turning yellow (“Cellulose Based Plastics: Celluloid and Rayon,” Par 10). Because of these defects, Bakelite was produced. In the United States in 1907 industrial chemist, Leo Baekeland, invented the first thermoset plastic in history. By mixing carbolic acid and formaldehyde together, Baekeland discovered that his new product, which he titled Bakelite, hardened rapidly and formed to its container. In addition, the product would not burn, boil, melt, or dissolve under any circumstances (“The History of Plastics,” Par 4). Bakelite proved to be resistant to electricity, heat, fading, dampness, and sea salt. Because of these excellent attributes, Bakelite soon took place of celluloid based products. Bakelite was used for military weaponry, electrical insulators, telephone handsets, jewelry, and domestic products (Par 5-6). Simon’s discovery of polystyrene, Hyatt’s invention of celluloid plastic, and Bakeland’s famous thermoset plastic contributed significantly to civilizations dependence on synthetic plastics.
The first synthetic to change civilization was Bakelite. Although polystyrene and celluloid were discovered before Bakelite they faltered in being successfully commercialized and manufactured. Bakelite was the first synthetic that was capable of being used to manufacture thousands of products. Before Bakelite, products were made out of natural materials, plastics, and other low quality synthetics. However, these materials could only be used to manufacture a selection of products. They were not cost efficient for the manufacturer or for the consumer and they relied too heavily on nature. Because of cheap prices, reliability, and variety Bakelite was able to dominate the industry and weed out the natural and low quality synthetic products. In 1924, TIME magazine expressed that in a couple of years Bakelite would, “[…] be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization,” (Par 14) Almost twenty years after their statement, Bakelite’s production in the United States rose to 4,000,000 tons (Amato, Par 16). Bakelite was never altered and is still used in today’s civilization for a variety of products.
Polystyrene was the second synthetic to change civilization. Polystyrene was first used to manufacture products like synthetic tar dyes, ammonia, fertilizer, magnetic tape and rubber during the late 19th century and early 20th century, but as the plastic era began polystyrenes product capability grew. In the 1920’s, polystyrene was used to invent vinyl. Vinyl is made by a chemical reaction produced by mixing ethylene and chlorine together (“How Vinyl is made,” Par. 4). Before vinyl, leather was the popular natural product used for producing various products. Unfortunately, leather was not fireproof, waterproof, and only came in one texture. The end product of vinyl, on the other hand, produces a strong, inexpensive fire resistant powder that can be used as a thin flexible fabric for indoor uses or made into tough material for outdoor uses (“The History of Plastic,” Par.11). Because of these characteristics, vinyl made a massive hit in America. By the 1930’s, there wasn’t enough factories to keep up with the demand (Par 3). Today vinyl is considered the second largest selling plastic industry in the world (“From accidental discovery to worldwide acceptance: The history of vinyl,” Par. 7). Polystyrenes second big hit was saran. Saran was discovered by chemist, Ralph Wiley, in the late 1930’s. Ralph Wiley mixed polyvinylidene with chloride and discovered that his product would adhere to any material. Soon thereafter, saran was being manufactured as a packaging synthetic that kept food fresh (“The history of Plastic,” Par 11). Saran today is known as Saran Wrap, a plastic that is placed over food to preserve its freshness.
In 1950, Polystyrene’s capability skyrocketed. A new synthetic that could be made from petroleum and manufactured as fiber, films, and plastics became the predominant synthetic for all manufacturing products. This synthetic is known as polyethylene terephthalate, or polyester (Bellis, “Polyester PET,” Par 6). Before polyester, natural materials such as cotton, rubbers, and wood were used to produce the common products of households; however, these natural materials were costly and dependent on nature. Polyester was discovered during an experiment with pressurizing ethylene and benzaldehyde (“The History of Plastic,” Par 15). The final product yielded a strong reliant synthetic that was resistant to stretching, shrinking, and mildewing (Polyester Fiber,” Par 7). By the late 1930’s, factories with the capability of compressing the two chemicals together began to develop all across the United States. At first mass production was focused on military products for the United States army during the Second World War, then after the war factories turned their attention towards the public (“The History of Plastic,” Par 16). Products like bottles, films, automotive parts, bags, and Tupperware were manufactured to help make life just a little bit easier. The most popular use for polyester was in the clothing industry. Polyester, because of its excellent attributes, is used to make countless forms of clothing, carpet, upholstery, ropes, thread, fiberfill, and furniture (“Polyester Fiber,” Par 8). Polyester became so popular that it was known as the first synthetic to sell over a billion pounds in one year in the United States (“the history of Plastic,” Par 17). Today there are over twelve different chemical structures of polyester used in the manufacturing production.
During the fifties, polythene popularity increased with the invention of three more new synthetics. The first synthetic that turned heads after the invention of polyester was nylon. Before nylon was invented, stockings were manufactured from silk, toothbrush bristles were made out of horse hair, and other synthetics were used to try to strengthen material (“The History of Plastic,” Par 10). Nylon was invented by the Dupont Company’s research team and was introduced to the public as Fiber 66. At first, nylon catered to the dentist industry for toothbrushes, but Dupont’s interest was to introduce nylon as the new hosiery. Nylon hosiery became so popular that in its first year on the market there were sixty-four million pairs sold (Par 7). Because of this craze, nylon is considered the second most used fiber synthetic in the United States today (Par 10). In addition to hosiery for women, nylon is used in numerous other products. Mainly nylon is used for clothing, mechanical parts, military products, medical instruments, and entertainment purposes (Bellis, “The History of Pantyhose?” Par 4). When manipulated, nylon also proved to be an alternative to zippers. In 1957, a Swiss engineer, George Maestral, invented a product using nylon that could be spun into any thickness without degrading and was fairly inexpensive. This new product was known as Velcro® (“The History of Plastic,” Par. 19). Velcro® is a licensed name; however, it has also become a household name. Velcro has two sides, one with stiff hooks and the other with soft loops, which adhere to each other. The two sides can be fastened and unfastened countless times and will not loose its adhering ability (Par 1). Velcro became so popular that in the beginning of its early years the product sold over sixty million yards per year. Those numbers have grown since then and now Velcro is a multi-million dollar industry (Bellis, “The Invention of Velcro® - George de mistral,” Par 2). The third invention that contributed to polystyrene’s popularity during the fifties was polystyrene foam or commonly referred to as Styrofoam®. Styrofoam® was introduced into the United States in the 1950’s by the Dow Chemical Co. for use in the construction industry (Par 5). Although Styrofoam® has become a household name, it is a trademark name that only is commercially used for the insulating foam that is distributed by the Dow Chemical Co. Polystyrene foam is thirty times lighter than regular polystyrene and can be molded into various shapes (Bellis, “Polystyrene and Styrofoam,” Par 6). Polystyrene foam became popular because of its numerous manufacturing opportunities. Foam can be made into construction materials, helmets, shipping protection, medical application, entertainment products, life preservers, and containers (“Contour Products, Inc.,” Par 2). Polystyrene and its counterpart synthetics are currently the largest volume of plastic that is produced and sold in the world (“The History of Plastic,” Par 17).
The third synthetic to change civilization was celluloid. At first, in its common state, celluloid was used to produce clothing, entertainment items, films, and artwork; however, as industrial scientists began to manipulate the chemical structure celluloid proved to be a great synthetic for a larger variety of products. The first manipulation of celluiod was made by Charles Cross and Eward Bevan. Both Cross and Bevan invented a synthetic that was cellulose based and would take the place of silk. This new form of cellulose was known as Rayon. Rayon was first commercialized in the early 1910’s in the United State, but it wasn’t until the mid 20’s that it became popular. Rayon allowed the United States to be independent on foreign trade for silk. In addition, rayon was less expensive than silk clothing. Just a couple years later, cellulose went through another transformation that changed the packaging industry forever. Products at first were packaged in natural materials, plastics, and saran until the invention of a successful commercialized polyethylene was introduced. Natural materials and polyethylene proved to be an excellent packaging material but was costly. It wasn’t until Swiss chemist, Brandenberger’s, invention did the cost of packaging decrease. Brandenbergers astonishing invention was cellophane (Bellis, “Cellophane,” Par 1). Cellophane is a flexible waterproof film that can be placed around a product to protect it from outside chemicals (“The History of Plastic, Par 9). Cellophane differs from polythynene Saran Wrap because cellophane can be manipulated in a way so as to not adhere to the product where as Saran Wrap sticks to the product and can do damage to the appearance of the product. The popularity of cellophane rose when in the late 20’s the research team of Dupont company discovered a way to make cellophane moisture proof (Bellis, “Cellophane,” Par. 4). Today, cellophane is used to package almost all products manufactured in a factory and is used to protect food in common households.
Aside from the industrial aspect of synthetics, synthetics have become the cornerstone of the global economy. There are millions of jobs all across the world that depends on synthetics to operate and ensure profit ability. According to the American Plastics Council News Release on U.S plastic resins growth surges in 2004 there were approximately 180,000 jobs were created per month in the United States for the year of 2004. Because of Synthetics, the unemployment rate for the United States dropped to 5.4 percent by the end of the year. American Plastic Council believes that if the job creation from synthetics continues then in 2005 employment should reach nearly full employment (Metzger, Par 4). Synthetics have provided countries with economic stability so as to develop much needed jobs and manufacture millions of prominent products.
While there are some detractors of the idea that civilization is going plastic there are more proprietors who say that synthetics are the most pliable and economical product in the manufacturing industry. The detractors of synthetics are focused on one issue concerning synthetic’s affect on the environment. The issue is, synthetics are non biodegradeable. It is true that some synthetics are non biodegradable. To be more specific, polystyrene foam, hard plastic products, and nylon clothing are non biodegradable. According to Stephen Fenichell, author of, Plastic: The making of a Synthetic Century, polystyrene foam will never degrade, hard plastic products will take up to fifty to eighty years to degrade, and nylon clothing will degrade after the course of thirty years (3). When synthetics were first created, they were admired for there reliability, variety, and cheap prices. Manufactures had no idea that two out of the three factors would contribute to the throw away economy of civilization today.
At first, when natural materials and natural plastics were used to manufacture products, consumers bought products and kept them for numerous years. The time frame of products were mainly based upon the fact that natural materials and plastics simply lasted that long and they were too expensive to buy and throw away. Well as soon as synthetics were introduced into the market consumers became overwhelmed with cheap prices and variety. Plastic storage devices now came in every color imaginable and if the hosiery got a run, it was cheaper to buy new ones then to mend them. These new opportunities contributed to the throw away economy of civilization today. According to the office of naval research, oil based products were designed so that they would never biodegrade (Feichell, 3). Unfortunately with the increasing waste of plastics from civilization, some detractors believe that synthetics need to be biodegradable or soon the environment will become a landfill.
The non biodegradable issue of plastics has become an increasing issue over the last couple of decades. Just recently the United States recycling department has done research on how to recycle plastics so as to reduce the quantity of waste that is piling up in the landfills. Since the research, the United States recycling department has taken appropriate actions to ensure that the recycling of plastics be administered. As for thermo plastics they are to be re-melted and reused as other products. Recycling for thermo set plastics are carried out by grounding up the plastic and using the material as filler (Par 6). Other biodegradable plastics are recycled by being exposed to sunlight (Par 9). In addition to recycling companies that use plastics are changing their chemical structures of their plastics so as to manufacture products that will recycle much easier (“Plastic Recycling and the environment,” Par 7). The recycling of plastics is still a working progress but there are great hopes for the future.
In addition, some detractors raise the question; what will civilization do when there isn’t enough oil to make synthetic plastics? Will civilization simply return to natural materials and plastics or will civilization fall into another dark age? Detractors of synthetic plastics poise prominent problems that are associated with synthetics; however proprietors believe that they have overlooked the benefits. Proprietors like to say that civilization before synthetics was in the Dark Age. Synthetics have allowed peoples to progress in ways never thought imaginable. Natural materials and plastics would never have been able to be used to manufacture many of the products of today. For example a home computer, television, or even a cell phone would never have been able to be produced from natural products. Without the invention of synthetics technology, the medical field, military forces, apparel industry, and numerous other industries would not have been able to progress to where they are today. In addition, polystyrene, celluloid, and Bakelite have paved the road to cheap prices, less labor, independence from nature, and a larger variety of production capability. According to the proprietors of synthetics, detractors have overlooked these wonderful characteristics of synthetics.
Synthetics today produce over forty million tons of plastic a year (Amato, Par 16). The industrial chemist of polystyrene, celluloid, and Bakelite probably never imagined any plastic being able to produce forty million tons a year let alone their synthetic plastics. Still more unimaginable is how three chemical substances were able to impact history and civilization so drastically. Synthetics have contributed to the progression of civilization from the agrarian society and into the industrial and post modern society of today. Countless industries and technologies owe their very existence to Synthetics. Synthetics have given nations their independence; they have stopped monopolies, instituted peace, and provoked wars. Without doubt, the inventions of synthetics have changed the industrial world of civilization forever.
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