The history of plastic in 15 key dates
If the consumption and production of plastics has recently been snowballing as never before, when did we first start using plastics?
Half of all plastics* have been manufactured since 2005**. And yet humans have been trying for centuries to develop materials with benefits that cannot always be found in natural materials. So if the consumption and production of plastics has recently been snowballing as never before, when did we first start using plastics? Here are 15 key dates that map out the history of this material that is so handy!
Plastic is an “antiquity”!
Several centuries BC, men were already using the plastic properties of rubber, amber, horn and turtle scales. Once heated and moulded, these materials could be made into numerous objects. The first plastics were therefore of natural origin insofar as they came from non-fossil raw materials (such as oil) and underwent little processing. The very first plastic handled by Man is thought to have been latex: it was used to make balls and figurines, 1600 years before our era in South America***.
19th century: the first artificial plastics
While the history of plastics can be traced back to Antiquity, it was only from the late 19th century onwards that their use began to expand after the development of artificial plastics. Hundreds of researchers were behind this expansion. Here are a few of them:
1862 : Parkesine, the first form of artificial plastic
The first samples of Parkesine, which is manufactured from plant cellulose, were exhibited at the London International Exhibition. It was the very first form of artificial plastic. It was invented by Alexander Parkes: while he was looking into other substances that might yield similar results to natural rubber and studying cellulose nitrate, he obtained a new material that could be used in a solid, plastic or fluid state. It was by turns rigid, flexible, water resistant, opaque, capable of being coloured and worked on with tools like metals, moulded by compression, and so on.
1870 : the invention of Celluloïd
John Wesley Hyatt followed Parkes’ trail, after having read an announcement of a competition launched by the company Phelan and Collander, which produced billiard balls in ivory The raw material was starting to be in short supply; the company was offering $10,000 prize money to anyone who managed to develop a material that could replace it. This is how Celluloïd was born. It was used for a long time to manufacture table tennis balls and films for cinema camera, but it was highly inflammable and practically never used today.
XXth century: new, fully-synthetic plastics
1907 : industrial plastic and Bakelite
It was a decisive breakthrough when the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first industrial plastic based on a synthetic polymer. Thanks to its many properties, and despite its opaque, dull, brownish colours, Bakelite was used for telephone cases, saucepan handles, electricity sockets, ashtrays and so on. The year after, in 1908, the Swiss chemist J. Branderberger made the first flexible, perfectly transparent material: cellophane.
Telephone made of Bakelite
1926 : invention of PVC
It’s the beginning of the commercial success of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Although the Russian chemists Ivan Ostromislensky and Fritz Klatte had both tried to use PVC in commercial products at the beginning of the century, their efforts were not crowned with success because of the difficulty of processing the polymer. So it was in 1926 that Waldo Semon, in partnership with the company B.F. Goodrich, developed a method for plasticizing PVC by mixing it with additives. This made the material more flexible and easier to manufacture. Four years later, industrial production of Polystyrene began. This rigid, low-density material, marketed under the name of Styrofoam, was initially used as heat insulation for buildings.
1935 : versatile polyamide
This year saw the emergence of polyamide, a fibre described as “as solid as steel, as fine as a spider’s web, and magnificently shiny,” by DuPont de Nemours, the American chemical company that invented it. This plastic had a low friction coefficient and proved its worth in the GIs’ parachutes during the 1945 landing. It would also be used to manufacture stockings.
1938 : Teflon and its numerous uses
Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), an insulant with excellent chemical and thermal resistance (up to 250 °C with possible peaks at 300 °C), was used in the military nuclear industry. Then, from around 1960, it was used to coat frying pans (antiadhesive properties) and is present in technical fabrics (such as goretex).
1940 : plastic for military use
Silicone and synthetic rubber were manufactured to meet the raw materials requirements of countries at war during the Second World War. The military needs of the First and Second World Wars had led to an industrial and technological development of this synthetic chemistry.
Second half of the 19th century: democratisation
After the First World War, plastics entered the industrial era: polystyrene, polyamide, etc. were to be found in every house, regardless of the occupants’ social condition. At the time, plastics were mostly made from oil and natural gas: now that petrochemistry had become accessible, modern plastics were also affordable then. The only real phenomenon in the history of Mankind to have been produced in such large proportions and so rapidly, the traditional materials were replaced by synthetic substances. Mass consumption and diversification prompt an explosion in demand and reinforce the rise of this new industry. Plastic is used for highly varied purposes and becomes one “of the little objects of everyday life”.
1947 : the first technical bioplastic
Rilsan (or Polyamide 11) was the first technical bioplastic**** introduced onto the market. The patent was filed by a small French company called Organico. Made from a derivative of castor oil, it was made into fibres that rivalled with the technical plastics used for lightweight, resistant mechanical parts.
1949 : plastics for daily use
The “melamine-formol, MF” (Formica)plastics discovered in 1941 invaded kitchens and furniture. They were followed by polyester, the best-known being polyterephthalate (PET, PETE). Very widely used in the clothing industry (often mixed with other fibres, in particular cotton and linen), its applications had become diversified in industryl
1953 : multi-sectoral plastic
it is the appearance of High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) which extends the family of Low-Density Radical Polyethylene (LDRPE) discovered in 1939. High-density PE is used for the manufacture of rigid products: bottles (detergents, cosmetics, etc.), cans, jerry cans, car fuel tanks, pipes, etc., while low-density PE is used for flexible products: bags, films, sachets, flexible tubes, etc. Still in 1953, polycarbonate (PC) appeared, a highly transparent and extremely shock-proof plastic (which equipped the casque of the astronauts for the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969! The following year also saw the invention of polypropylène (PP), used in the automobile sector.
1973 : plastic becomes sophisticated
The oil crisis marked a turning point in the history of consumerism in general and plastics in particular. Plastics, which are often seen as a throw-away, low-end replacement often became sophisticated, highly technical materials. They are more economical, efficient and malleable, leaving manufacturers’ imagination run free.
1990s : development of bioplastics
These are the years in which most of the development of bioplastics**** is accomplished, with the emergence of PLA, PHAs and plasticised starches, which have since benefited from the rapid advances of the green chemistry sector.
Nowadays: a record rate of production of plastics, despite protests
360 million metric tons
This is the amount of plastic produced in the world in 2018
i.e. a 3% increase over 2017.
Source: Plastics – the Facts 2019 (PlasticsEurope)
Because there are many benefits to using plastics even today, global plastic production levels are rising year by year.
Find out more: Plastic in our society
Even so, plastic pollution is a major environmental concern. Rethinking the end-of-life of this eminently useful material is therefore becoming a challenging issue for society.
“Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans.
It nothing changes, in 2050, there will be more plastic than fish…”
Nadia Auclair, Chairwoman of Carbiolice
Thankfully, awareness of environmental issues is growing and urging us on to make further headway: improving recycling, using renewable raw materials, making rational use of materials, developing biodegradability, and so on. At the same time, new laws are coming into force:
2016 : ban on single-use plastic bags
This year will be marked by the ban on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets in France. This is a first step in the combat against plastic pollution. It is forcing users and manufacturers to find more eco-friendly alternatives, and brands to commit to shrinking their plastic footprint (in particular through the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle).
2020 : Curb overwrapping and devlopping compost
Certain single-use plastic products (disposable cups and plates, which are non-biodegradable and non-biosourced, along wotton buds) are banned under Article L541-10-5 of the environment code. The Agricultural and Food Act boradens this ban to include straws, disposable cutlery, steack picks, disposable glass covers, meal trays, ice buckets and salad bowls. At European level, the Single-Use Plastic (SUP) Directive also imposes a number of measures: as a result, stirrers, straws and cotton buds have been banned from the European Union.
In the face of these bans, and in order to “curb overwrapping and the use of single-use plastic”, the Citizen Convention also proposed in June 2020 to “develop compostable bio-sourced packages”. Composting does indeed seem to be a real alternative for rethinking the end-of-life of plastics that cannot currently be recycled or reused, because they are too thin, too dirty or manufactured in multilayers.
And tomorrow, what future for biodegradable plastic ?
Plastics have revolutionised our day-to-day life. Every day, researchers and scientists continue to push back the boundaries of knowledge in every field in which plastics can help us. They are working on solutions that are ever more respectful and will soon be part of our everyday lives. What if, in order to continue being “fantastic”, plastic had to be 100% biodegradable and 100% compostable, to guarantee eco-friendly growth?
Did you know? By speeding up the biodegradation of compostable, PLA-based plastics, the Evanesto® technology makes it possible to add potato peels and coffee grounds, cups, yoghurt containers, food containers, capsules and other plastic films and degrade them in less than 200 days directly in your composter with no residue and no toxicity.
* Plastic is a composite containing a base material (a polymer) that can be moulded and shaped, generally while hot and under pressure, in order to lead to a semi-product or an object.
** Source: Plastics – the Facts 2019 (PlasticsEurope)
*** Hosler, D., Burkett, S. L. & Tarkanian, M. J. Prehistoric polymers: rubber processing in ancient Mesoamerica. Science 284, 1988-1991 (1999).
****The term bioplastic designates two types of materials. The first is bio-sourced plastics (derived from biomass); the second is biodegradable (i.e. compostable) plastics, including those derived from fossil resources (petrochemical reactions). Some bioplastics have both characteristics: they are biosourced and biodegradable.
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