Life Before Plastic

There really was a time on Earth when plastic did not exist. Actually, plastic is a rather recent human invention, one which most people would never choose to omit from their lives.

Having been born in 1941, I am well aware of the changes in people’s lives due to the beginning of the use of plastic.

The first attempt at manufacturing a plastic-type material was in the 1850s but was not very much like the plastic that the world uses now for everyday gadgets. That first material was largely built with a cellulose base; cellulose is found in plants. Alexander Parkes mixed camphor and alcohol with cellulose to manufacture a type of plastic.

Plastic made of a polymer material was created in 1909 and was called Bakelite. This was the first synthetic plastic in the world.

Plastic was first used to make the pins which make the collars of shirts stiff. Plastic was later used to cover the outside of billiard balls and to make household items such as ash trays and as the housing for electric appliances.

I was about ten years old before plastic started becoming one of the major components of consumer products. I remember as a child of six or eight years of age that my toys were largely made of metal. I had never heard of plastic nor had I ever seen any of it.

There are many types of plastic used. The type of plastic depends on what it will be used for. There are hard plastics and quite soft plastics, some used in photographic film bases, others used for shopping bags, some that can be seen through to some degree while others are quite opaque.

Plastic has evolved to be used for many purposes. The name “plastic” is even used to replace the word “money” at times. Some terms which seem out-of-place when talking of plastic are “plastic surgery” or “plastic soil”. No doubt many more plastic terms will show up in our everyday vocabulary.

As with many other inventions, plastic has some negative aspects. Just as some people have disagreeable side effects when taking aspirin, some people have negative reactions to plastics. Even if not serious, these reactions cause some people to shy away from using plastic. Plastic is usually not biodegradable so anything made of plastic is difficult to destroy except by burning. Plastic used in kitchen or food handling situations often picks up odors of things which were stored in it. Fruit drinks stored in plastic pitchers often carry the odor of the fruit even after having been washed.

Plastic has replaced heavier and more expensive things such as milk bottles or water pipes used in home construction. The savings in cost is often significant, and the life expectancy of the plastic products is usually quite high, making it a better substitute for the metal or glass products it replaces.

What will replace plastic in the years to come? Let’s wait and see.

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2 Responses to “Life Before Plastic”
  1. Arie Uittenbogaard Says...

    On June 21, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Nicely done. Sounds like a chapter from a Bill Bryson book.

  2. lucy Says...

    On May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am

    thank you really helped with my homework :)

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