Plastics have become an integral part of our daily lives, from the packaging of our food to the materials used in our electronics. However, the widespread use of plastics has also led to a global crisis of plastic pollution. In this post we will discuss how plastics were first introduced, how they evolved over the years, and how humanity is learning to deal with the environmental impact.
The Invention of Plastics
The First Synthetic Plastic
The first synthetic plastic, called Bakelite, was invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It was created by combining phenol and formaldehyde, and it revolutionized the manufacturing industry with its durability and versatility. Bakelite was used in a variety of products, from electrical insulators to kitchenware.
The Rise of Polyethylene
In the 1930s, polyethylene was invented by accident by two scientists working for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). This plastic was cheaper and easier to produce than Bakelite, and it quickly became the most widely used plastic in the world. Polyethylene is still used today in a variety of products, including plastic bags and bottles as well as extruded tubing applications.
The first high density plastic was created in the late 1950s by Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta, who discovered a way to produce polyethylene with a higher density. This breakthrough led to the commercial production of HDPE in the 1960s. However, the initial production process was expensive and limited to small-scale production.
In the 1970s, advancements in manufacturing techniques allowed for the mass production of HDPE. This led to a decrease in production costs and an increase in the use of HDPE in various industries. The development of extrusion and injection molding techniques also made it easier to produce complex shapes and designs with HDPE.
The Plastic Revolution
The Introduction of Single-Use Plastics
In the 1950s, the plastic revolution truly began with the introduction of single-use plastics. These were designed to be used once and then thrown away, making them convenient for consumers but disastrous for the environment. Single-use plastics include items such as straws, plastic cutlery, and plastic bags.
The Boom of Plastic Production
With the rise of single-use plastics, the production of plastic skyrocketed. In 1950, the world produced 1.5 million tons of plastic. By 2015, that number had increased to 322 million tons. This exponential growth in plastic production has led to a global crisis of plastic pollution.
The Impact of Plastic Pollution
The Problem with Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution is a major environmental issue that affects our oceans, wildlife, and human health. Every year, millions of tons of plastic end up in our oceans, harming marine life and polluting our beaches. Plastic pollution also poses a threat to wildlife, as animals can mistake plastic for food or become entangled in it.
The Need for Action
In response to the growing problem of plastic pollution, many countries and organizations have taken action to reduce plastic waste. In 2018, the European Union proposed a ban on single-use plastics, and many countries have implemented plastic bag bans. However, more needs to be done to address this global crisis.
The Future of Plastics
The Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution
In 2020, the United States released a draft national strategy to prevent plastic pollution. This strategy aims to reduce plastic waste and promote a circular economy, where plastics are reused and recycled rather than thrown away. The strategy also includes plans to improve plastic waste management and invest in research and development for sustainable alternatives to plastic.
The Rise of Bioplastics
Bioplastics, or plastics made from renewable resources, are gaining popularity as a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics. These plastics can be made from materials such as corn starch, sugarcane, or even algae. While bioplastics still have some environmental impacts, they are a step towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuel-based plastics.
3D Printing the Future
3D printing relies heavily on plastic materials, such as ABS and PLA, to create objects. These materials are cheap, readily available, and easy to work with, making them a popular choice for 3D printing. 3D printer filaments can now be extruded in a wide variety of colors and materials. Unfortunately, 3D printing has now been shown to produce a large amount of plastic waste, so the race is on to find sustainable solutions.
One way to reduce the impact of plastics in 3D printing is to use sustainable materials. There are now various sustainable materials available for 3D printing, such as bioplastics and recycled plastics. Bioplastics, being made from renewable materials, means that they will break down naturally over time, reducing the amount of plastic waste in landfills. Recycled plastics, on the other hand, are made from post-consumer or post-industrial waste. This not only reduces the amount of plastic waste but also reduces the need for new plastic production, which has a significant environmental impact.