From solution to problem: a short history of plastic

It all started with a billiard ball and a $10,000 prize.

New York City, 1863. Up until this point, billiard balls had traditionally been made out of ivory. However, when a diminishing elephant population put severe limitations on this practice, manufacturers were forced to find a new material for the job. A $10,000 prize was offered to whoever could come up with the answer.

An ambitious inventor called John Wesley Hyatt headed the call and set to work. He combined camphor with alcohol and nitrocellulose and used extreme pressure to mould the material into a sphere. Due to its fragility and flammability, it failed to win the prize. However, Hyatt’s invention ended up being worth far more than $10,000. As documented in a new exhibit called Plastic: Remaking Our World at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, Hyatt’s celluloid creation would inspire the first great leap in a global materials revolution: Bakelite.

Invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, this lightweight, durable material was the first plastic to be entirely of synthetic components. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite quickly gained popularity in the manufacturing of costume jewellery, car engine parts, and washing machines. Polystyrene, vinyl, acrylic, and nylon soon followed, until we finally arrived at polyethylene, the most common plastic in use today.

However, it wasn’t until the Second World War that these materials really took off. A number of manufacturers had become highly successful during the war making products such as parachutes and bullet proof vests out of synthetic materials. When the war ended, many of these companies were left searching for alternative ways of generating revenue, so they began to apply their expertise in plastics to producing a wider range of household items, from food packaging to toothbrushes.

Manufacturing costs were low, and the introduction of moulds in the factories supported mass production on a grand scale. At this time, plastics were seen as a wonder material that could solve many problems. Items that had once been fragile were now robust. Things that had been too heavy to transport were now lightweight and mobile. Products that had previously been unaffordable to the working classes were suddenly available to all. Plastics also played a key role in the development of computers, mobile phones, and many life-saving medical tools.

But while the mid-20th century world dreamed of a future made lighter, easier and more affordable by plastics, the one thing it did not imagine was how to dispose of them – and the environmental problems this would create. This is particularly due to single-use plastics, which began to proliferate in packaging throughout the end of the century. Landfills are now clogged with single-use packaging, which can take centuries to decompose. The oceans are swimming with it. It’s in our food chain. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s everywhere. The pursuit of convenience came at a great cost, and now we are desperately searching for ways to rectify the damage.

The willingness and drive to find solutions, however, is there. A poll by IPSOS (February 2022) based on 20,000 people in 28 countries revealed that 75% of people want single-use plastics to be banned as soon as possible. This sends a clear message to governments. People want an end to plastic pollution and are willing to make behavioural and lifestyle changes to help the cause.

While it’s impossible to imagine a world without plastics, it might be possible to create one – as so many of those surveyed want – without single use plastics. And with a new generation of biodegradable bioplastics offering feasible alternatives, it seems as if we’re heading in a positive direction. Indeed, it may be that plastics serve humanity best when they stay truest to their historical inspiration: Hyatt, after all, wasn’t after something disposable, but a more sustainable billiard ball – one that didn’t rely on animal exploitation and was longer lasting and more durable. Single use plastics have left us with a monster of a problem, but the next chapter in the story of plastic is still ours to write.