“Unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future.” Leo Baekeland wrote those words in his journal on 11 July, 1907. In July 1907, he was experimenting with formaldehyde and phenol.
He became so famous that Time magazine put his face on the cover without needing to mention his name, just the words, “It will not burn. It will not melt.” What Leo Baekeland invented that July was the first fully synthetic plastic. He called it Bakelite. And he was right about its future importance. Plastics would soon be everywhere.
When Susan Freinkel wrote her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, she spent a day noting down everything she touched that was plastic: the light switch, the toilet seat, the toothbrush, the toothpaste tube. She also noted everything that wasn’t – the toilet paper, the wooden floor, the porcelain tap. By the day’s end, she’d listed 102 items that weren’t made of plastic, and 196 that were.
In the 1920s and 1930s, plastics poured out of labs around the world. There was polystyrene, often used for packaging, nylon, popularised by stockings, and polyethylene, the stuff of plastic bags.
As World War Two stretched natural resources, production of plastics ramped up to fill the gap. And when the war ended, exciting new products like Tupperware hit the consumer market. But they weren’t exciting for long: the image of plastic gradually changed. For the older neighbour’s generation, “plastic” still meant opportunity and modernity. For the likes of young, it stood for all that was phoney, superficial, ersatz. Half a century on, despite its image problem, plastic production has grown about twenty-fold. It’ll double again in the next 20 years.
None of the commonly used plastics is biodegradable, and many are not recycled Some of the chemicals in plastics are thought to affect how animals develop and reproduce. When plastics end up in landfill, those chemicals can eventually seep into groundwater; when they find their way into oceans, some creatures eat them.
But there’s another side to the ledger – plastic has benefits that aren’t just economic, but environmental too. Vehicles made with plastic parts are lighter, and so use less fuel. Plastic packaging keeps food fresh for longer, and so reduces waste. If bottles weren’t made of plastic, they’d be made of glass. Which would you rather gets dropped in your children’s playground?