A brief history of plastic

A brief history of plastic

Man’s search for “plastic” materials has an ancient origin. Scholars tell us that since 2000 BC natural polymers such as clay, argil and wax were used to build easily moldable objects suitable for home use.

The history of plastic as we know it today began instead in 1862, when Alexander Parkes presented the first cellulose-based resin at the London exhibition. This plastic material was immediately patented, and used to build boxes, handles, folding items and clothing.

A step forward was then taken in 1870 when the Hyatt brothers, who were looking for a material to replace the ivory from which billiard balls were made, patented cellulose nitrate, the first form of celluloid that also became a huge success in dentists’ offices, where it was used to make dental impressions.

In the 1900s, plastic began to make itself known above all thanks to the birth of the actual celluloid, used as a component of airplanes and for cinema films.

In 1907 it was Leo Baekeland’s turn. A Belgian chemist, he synthesized Bakelite, a particularly robust plastic material used for the production of telephones and radios. The first sheet of cellophane was created in 1908 by the Swiss chemist Jacques Edwin Brandenberger.

In the 1930s there was a real boom in plastics with the invention of PVC, followed by Plexiglas and Formica for the production of worktops and school desks. The next step was taken with melamine, used to manufacture of the first unbreakable tableware, and Nylon, with which women’s stockings and parachutes were made. Plastic then entered people’s daily lives even more massively in the 1960s when, thanks to its versatility and low cost, it became a component of clothes, curtains, tools, toys and household appliances. The most widespread material is light, resistant and flexible Moplen, in the production of which Giulio Natta, an Italian chemical engineer who won the Nobel Prize in 1973, also participated. Many household objects began to be made of plastic and this material also became successful in the sphere of fashion and art, becoming the symbol of a modern lifestyle.

Over time, plastic became the main material from which disposable items are made. A turning point linked to the DuPont company was marked when in 1967 it put on the market the first plastic bottle for carbonated drinks. It was an “epoch-making” transition as a switch was made from “returnable” to “disposable”.  It was the triumph of the plastic age. And was an anthropological change, too.

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