Era of the Plastics
History classifies the early ages of humankind based on the materials they used for making their implements and other necessities. According to Brydson (2013), the most popular periods known are the Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bronze Age. Unfortunately, the system of classification could not be used to describe subsequent periods as with the passage of time, man started using other materials such as metals, stones, woods, ceramics, glasses, skins, horns, and fibers. Until the 19th century, the inanimate possessions for man’s home, tools, furniture among others things came from a variety of these eight classes of materials. However, during the half of the 19th century, two new closely related classes of material were introduced – plastics and rubber. Currently, plastic plays an integral role in society and the daily life of humankind.
Evolution of the Plastics
Originally, the word plastic meant pliable and easily shaped and only became a category of materials called polymers recently. From half of the nineteenth and moving through the twentieth century up to now, humans have learned to make synthetic polymers and have adopted the use of natural substances such as cellulose. More often, carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. By definition, a polymer is a chain of linked repetitive units such as synthetic organic materials used as plastics (Ashraf, Sḥmad, & Riaz, 2009). The difference in the organization and nature of the units create the different types of polymers that exist. Virtually, the first synthetic polymers discovered by Alexander Parkers in the middle of the nineteenth century and appeared on the show in 1862 at London’s Great Exhibition. The synthetic plastic was used to make shoe soles and billiard balls. Later John Wesley Hyatt improved the cellulose nitrate and developed a new product called by celluloid.
The early plastic became popular as people used it to make combs, buttons, and cutlery handles. As Ashraf et al. elaborate, the new polymers were modified to resemble the variants of natural polymers, and the best known was rayon or artificial silk. An example of a wholly synthetic polymer was Bakelite made from phenol and formaldehyde. The plastic was preferred due to its rigidity, strength, lightness, resistance from heat, and insulation and was widely used in the generation of electricity and supply industry for several years. Coming to the twentieth century between the 1920s and the 1930s, plastics continued to be developed. Additionally, the plastics were widely used during the Second World War and by the 1950s, they had started to find their way into households. Over the years, the production of plastics has increased enormously and consumption reaching 500 million tonnes in 2006 down from one million tonnes in 1939. In so many ways, plastics have replaced wood, metal, glass, rubber, and paper due to their lightness, strength, corrosion resistant, and durability. Along with that, the other element that has made plastic popular is the fact that they can be easily molded and extruded making them economically viable.
Plastics continue to benefit the society in many ways. According to Morth and Halden (2013), the benefits of plastics are more apparent in the field of medicine and public health and have been used in multiple health applications such as disposable syringes, intravenous bags, tissue engineering, and sterile packaging bags among others. Consequently, it is important to note that plastics have facilitated many advances in the human society. Unfortunately, the disposal options available for plastics have caused tremendous damage to the environment. For instance, plastics can be disposed in landfills or incinerated. However, landfills require space and the chemical and energy contained in the plastic articles is lost during the disposal process. The other option, the incineration disposal method returns some energy from the plastic production process, which has been associated with multiple environmental and health effects. Another method used to dispose of plastics is biodegradation, which is often seen as environmental-friendly due to certain polymers that are biodegradable. Nevertheless, some plastics may not biodegrade rapidly enough to avoid contaminating or polluting the environment. Additionally, it is important to note that some plastics such as the plastic bags can take several years to biodegrade (Moharan & Maqtari, 2014). Sometimes the option of recycling overwhelms the users and the plastics end up polluting the environment.
The plastics we know today have been in existence for more than one century. The synthetic materials that make plastics were discovered hundreds of years ago and molded to give what we have today – plastics. Due to their desirable characteristics including durability, corrosion resistance, strength, and lightness among others, plastics have replaced other materials such as wood, metal, rubber, and glass among others. Unfortunately, although plastics have several benefits to the human society, they also pose a grave danger to the environment. As outlined above, the various ways used to dispose of plastics are the major reason why plastics are hazardous. Whether through landfills, incineration, or biodegradation, plastics always end up polluting the environment.
Ashraf, S. M., Sḥmad, S., & Riaz, U. (2009). A laboratory manual of polymers. New Delhi: IK International Publishing House.
Brydson, J. A. (2013). Plastics Materials. Burlington: Elsevier Science.
Moharan, R., Maqtari, M. A. A. (2014). The impact of plastic bags on the environment: a field survey of the city of Sana’a and the surrounding areas, Yemen. International Journal of Engineering Research and Reviews, 2(4), 61-69.North, E. J., & Halden, R. U. (2013). Plastics and environmental health: the road ahead. Reviews on Environmental Health, 28(1), 1-8
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