plastic of the future

The Ultimate Guide to Plastics of the Future Part 1-The History of Plastics

The beginning of Plastics

Over the past 100 years, our society has become increasingly reliant on plastic to manufacture the products we use every day. The use of plastics boomed in the early 1900s as an alternative to metal. The world was looking for stronger, lighter, and cheaper materials, and plastic was the clear answer.

Today, we are hooked on plastics in every industry. This means that the fundamental materials that humans rely on are typically made from petroleum and other toxic feedstocks. With consumption and population growth increasing, our business leaders need to start thinking about how the resources we rely on negatively impact the environment.

Since all of the materials we rely on have a high carbon footprint, it’s our responsibility to figure out how to reduce the adverse effect that these materials have on the environment. 

Over the next few decades, plastic will continue to be used across industries because, by and large, it is the strongest, lightest, and cheapest material. In a society that’s driven by cost reduction and optimization, plastic will continue to prove to be a superior material. 

If Earth’s largest companies are going to continue to use plastics, our society needs to start focusing on figuring out how to reduce the carbon footprint of these materials. As we seek to figure out how to reduce the carbon footprint of plastics, we can split the compound into two categories: the plastic itself, and the additives that go inside.

Of course, at Heartland, our thesis is that high-performance carbon-negative additives will make a positive impact on all raw material supply chains (plastic, rubber, foam, asphalt, paper, concrete, ceramic, and other materials). 

In the meantime, I would like to welcome you to the Plastics of the Future.

Part 1 – The History of Plastics

What is Plastic and Why is it so Important? Plastic is a type of material made from polymers that are derived mostly from natural gas and petroleum. It’s one of the most versatile materials in the world, and it is used in a wide variety of applications such as packaging, medical devices, and much more. Plastic has revolutionized our world and is able to do everything from acting as a storage container for food to repairing our teeth!  

Plastics (polymers) are a group of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic materials that have been engineered to have certain properties. They are typically inexpensive, durable, and can be molded into virtually any shape. It can be used for everything from food packaging to construction materials, clothes, and electronics. Plastic can also be found in many different shapes and sizes including bottles, containers, toys, bags, cups, plates and more.

Plastic truly is one of the most important materials in society and its durability and flexibility make it more versatile that many other materials. It has been an important material since the first true synthetic polymer was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland.

Due to the vast uses, plastics are now one of the most common materials in the world, and it is estimated that plastic makes up nearly 90% of all products made. The pluses include the fact that plastic is lightweight – which makes it easy to transport and use in different situations. It can be molded into virtually any shape, and the strength and impact resistance stand up to almost any material known to mankind.

But the downside is that polymers are difficult to break down, and so much of what we use is considered “single-use plastic”. Meaning that once we discard it, it can be decades or even centuries before it breaks down and rejoins the planet’s ecosystem. However, having a material that is cheap, flexible, pliable, and durable has changed not just the way we create products, but the impact they have on the environment. If it’s not recycled properly or disposed of correctly, it can linger in our landfills and oceans for a long, long time.

A Historic Timeline of Plastics

The first plastic (outside of raw cellulose) was invented in 1869 by Alexander Parkes. He called it Parkesine and it was made from cellulose nitrate, which is a type of plastic. It was not very strong and could not be used for many things, but it did pave the way for future breakthroughs.

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, which is the first fully synthetic plastic material. It was made from phenol and formaldehyde and had many uses including as an insulator for electrical wiring and as a replacement for ivory in piano keys.

Plastic is a term that was coined by Baekeland in 1909 and it originates from the Greek word “plastikos,” which means to “grow” or “form.” His invention made it possible to mass-produce goods like bottles and cups that were previously too expensive or difficult to make with other materials.

Once introduced in the early 1900s it was used for a variety of purposes and with the advent of WWII In the 1940s, plastics became even more popular as they were now being  used in military equipment such as helmets and gas masks.

In the 1950s plastics really took off on a consumer level. Previously plastics had been used mainly in the military and some select industries. However, the 50s ushered in a wave of plastic use and it became much more common in consumer goods such as toys, furniture, and clothing.

Plastics became commonplace for food packaging in the 1960s replacing glass and paper products. The material was relatively inexpensive and could be produced in a variety of forms, including items that needed to be kept warm, cold or isolated from the air. Plastics were also easier to keep clean than other materials which made them perfect for a number of medical uses. Nowadays, we know that plastic is everywhere!

There have been significant advances in plastics, especially in the early 20th century. Since the late 1990s however, the major advances have fallen off. Now that we are in the early 2020s, the advancements are clearly focused around making plastics more sustainable.

The timeline of major breakthroughs in the world of polymers up to 2010:

  • 1862 Parkesine – Alexander Parkes patents the first plastic products in 1862. Parkesine is made from cellulose – a natural product – and is moldable when heated and keeps its shape when cooled. It was very costly to produce so it did not see wide adoption.
  • 1869 Celluloid – John Hyatt obtains Parkes’ patent and creates celluloid to make billiard balls. Celluloid is largely used in the movie and photographic film industries prior to the 1950s.
  • 1893 Galalith – Auguste Trillat immerses casein in formaldehyde to create Galalith. It is used in the fashion industry to make buttons and costume jewelry. Galalith is still used to create buttons today.
  • 1909 Bakelite – Leo Baekeland patents Bakelite – the first totally synthetic plastic. It is heat resistant, and its properties make it an ideal electrical insulator. Bakelite was soon used in goods ranging from telephones to chess pieces. We still use it to make saucepan handles and electrical components.
  • 1912 Cellophane – Jacques Brandenberger patents Cellophane (from the words cellulose and diaphane – transparent). The thin, see-through sheets are used to package food, allowing consumers to see the items before purchasing them. We still use cellophane in sticky tape, gift wrap and packaging.
  • 1925 Plastic Terminology – The term ‘plastic’ is introduced to describe the new group of compounds that are becoming more widely used. Its roots are from the Latin word ‘plasticus’ (to mold) and from the Greek word ‘plastikos’ and ‘plassein’ (to form).
  • 1926 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – Although PVC has been a commercial product for several years, Waldo Smith and the BF Goodrich Company find a way to make it flexible. Nearly a century later, it is widely used in water and wastewater pipes, gutters and downpipes, medical tubing and more.
  • 1931 Polymethyl Methacrylate (safety glass) – Rowland Hill and John Crawford use polymethyl methacrylate to create a safer alternative to glass. They register the product under the trademark Perspex. Otto Röhm creates a similar product, trademarked as Plexiglass.
  • 1933 Polyvinylidene Chloride (plastic wrap) – Ralph Wiley discovers polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) while developing a dry-cleaning product. It is initially used for military purposes and is then reformulated to become cling film/plastic wrap. (LDPE later replaces PVDC as food wrap.)
  • 1935 Polyethylene – Michael Perrin creates a practical method to produce polyethylene. It has become the most common plastic produced in the world. HDPE (RIC number 2) is used to make milk jugs and bottles. LDPE (RIC number 4) is used to make plastic bags and squeezable bottles.
  • 1938 Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon) – Roy Plunkett discovers polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE) by accident while working with refrigerants. PFTE is trademarked as Teflon in 1945. A few years later, Collette Grégoire convinces her husband to put Teflon on her cooking pans, and they create a product still in use today.
  • 1938 Nylon – American company DuPont releases a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938. A year later, it introduced women’s nylon stockings at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Nylon fibers soon became popular for dress fabrics, carpets, tents and many other products.
  • 1944 Polystyrene – Ray McIntyre and Dow Chemical Company produce a lightweight water-resistant material, patenting it as Styrofoam. Polystyrene is currently used for many purposes. Rigid or molded polystyrene is used for food and drink containers, while foam and expanded polystyrene is used in packaging and building insulation.
  • 1946 Tupperware – Earl Tupper purifies polyethylene slag, a waste product, and molds it into lightweight unbreakable kitchen items known as Tupperware. Tupperware sold over $2.1B worth of the product at its peak in 2015.
  • 1948 Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) – ABS – a thermoplastic polymer – was patented in 1948 and introduced commercially in 1954. This plastic is best known for its toughness, which is the reason LEGO chooses ABS when designing and patenting its trademark bricks in 1958.
  • 1965 Poly-Paraphenylene Terephthalamide (Kevlar) – Stephanie Kwolek creates a new strong heat-resistant synthetic fiber. It is first used to strengthen racing tires. Kevlar is used for personal protection in the military and in sports and in many other applications.
  • 1965 Plastic Shopping Bags – Swedish company Celloplast patents what will become the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. Made of HDPE, the design is called “the t-shirt plastic bag”.
  • 1970 Medical Uses – The first flexible plastic IV bag is released for commercial use. The bag allows for closed transfusions and reduces the risk of contamination. Single-use plastic items soon replace many of the multi-use glass and/or metal items once used for medical tasks.
  • 1988 – The Society of the Plastics Industry introduced a voluntary resin identification coding system that provides a consistent system for identifying plastics resins used in packaging containers.
  • 1996 – Salad-in-a-bag packaging (metallocene-catalyzed polyolefins) was introduced, helping to reduce food waste and making it easier to purchase fresh produce.
  • 2000 – Polylactic Acid (PLA) made from corn is introduced to the packaging market, bringing back bio-based plastic to packaging.
  • 2007 – The two-liter plastic beverage bottle and the one-gallon plastic milk jug reach a milestone in “lightweighting” – both containers shed a third of their weight since they became widely used in the 1970s.
  • 2008 – Plastic bottles achieve a 27% recycling rate, reclaiming 2.4 billion pounds of plastic. (More pounds of plastic bottles have been recycled every year since 1990!) And polyethylene plastic bags and wraps achieve a 13% recycling rate, reclaiming 832 million pounds of plastic. (The recycling rate for polyethylene plastic bags and wraps has doubled since 2005.) 
  • 2010 – MetallyteTM films were introduced to help keep sharp contents (coffee beans, grains, noodles, croutons) fresher by reducing packaging tears. The new films are also lighter than foil-based designs. 

Recent Innovations in Plastics

Since 2010, the plastics industry has seen significant innovations in the way we form plastics products, and one of the most prominent developments is 3D printing. This process enables designers and engineers to create unique molds that can be used for different types of plastic products. 

Developments in 3D printing are happening at a rapid pace and they are making it possible for participants to create their own designs, collaborate with others on their ideas, and produce physical products in minutes rather than days.

There have been many breakthroughs in plastics and polymers in the area of sustainability and making our plastics “greener”. Green plastics and polymers are truly the future of the industry. It’s not just about producing less waste, but also about using renewable resources. It’s clear that we will need to make some major changes in how we produce plastics and polymers if we want to be able to sustain our way of life and our planet.

Natural plastics are biodegradable and made from natural products such as corn or sugarcane. Bioplastics are also made from natural products, but they are not easily biodegradable. The adoption of pure biopolymers has been slow, as they lack some of the qualities needed for commercial use. However, natural plastics additives have been more of a commercial success, and they can be used to make plastic products more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Bio-based plastics additives can be used to make plastic products more environmentally friendly. Bio-based plastics additives are sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable. As the world is becoming more aware of the devastating effects that plastic can have on our environment, many people are switching to greener options. One way that people can do this is by adding bio-based plastics additives to their plastic products.

Although plastics are plaguing our planet with waste and pollution, they have paved the way to create many of the products that we use every day. 

Plastics in the future will certainly be more sustainable, contain more bio-based materials and become much easier to recycle and reuse.

Join us as we make a world out of hemp.

Heartland Team

Part 2