1999/2000 Wrote and published 'Life in Plastics' - the impact of plastics on India - with co-author Rachel Kellett. The book examines the history of plastics and the toxicology of plastics in the wider socio-economic context of 'sustainability'.
Chapter 2. A short history of plastic

‘I just want to say one word to you,
Young man, just one word - plastics.
There’s a great future in plastics.’

From the film ‘The Graduate,’ 1968

It is forgivable to think that plastics are a relatively recent invention, a material of the 20th century. However, as part of the larger family of polymers they are a basic ingredient of plant and animal life.Today’s cutting edge of plastics research lies in the development of bio-plastics made from naturally occurring starches and sugars, especially important for disposal packaging.

The first plastics
The very first plastics were from natural polymers. In the 17th century an Englishman, John Osborne, made mouldings from the natural polymer, horn. Later, gums from tropical trees were exploited, especially rubber and gutta percha. This, from the milky sap of a Malayan evergreen, was used to insulate telegraph cables and to mould small consumer goods. Shellac, a resinous insect secretion gathered in India and South East Asia, was used with wood flour to mould cases for displaying early photographs. Shellac based compositions were used until the 1940’s to mould gramophone records. Lepage worked in France with albumen (white of egg) and wood to produce his decorative ‘Bois Durci’ plaques. Others worked with a variety of ingredients including seaweed, peat, paper and leather as additives.

The most profitable natural plastic was caoutchouc or rubber, derived from the Hevea Brasiliensis tree of South America. With his brother Charles, Thomas Hancock refined the process of the vulcanisation of rubber (1839), independently discovered by Goodyear in the US. When vulcanised with sulphur, rubber became vulcanite, ebonite, or hard rubber and was used for buttons, fancy goods and electrical insulation. This was the first deliberate chemical modification of a natural polymer to produce a moulded material.

Casein Formaldehyde was created at the beginning of 20th century. Manufacture was based on fat-free milk to which rennin was added to form curds. When suitably dried, processed and coloured, it could be extruded into rods and made into sheets. The material was then hardened in a bath of formaldehyde from which it was machined into the desired end use. Brilliant colours and patterns made casein a desired material for making buttons, buckles, fountain pens, barrels and knitting needles.

Cellulose Nitrate, commonly known as celluloid, was the first plastic to achieve extensive commercial success but only after a decade or so of false starts and financial failures. Celluloid came from a mixture of nitrated cellulose (obtained from pulped paper or cotton ) and camphor (from the bark of the Formosan camphor tree) . Pressed into blocks under heat and pressure, it was sliced into thin sections and then, after being partially re-softened by heat, was cut, stamped, pressed or moulded into inexpensive consumer items, including dental plates for false teeth.

Englishman Alexander Parkes displayed his celluloid material at The Great International Exhibition in London in 1862 but the earliest example of marketing success was that of the Hyatt brothers in the US. They had been motivated in 1863 by a printer in New York who offered a prize of US$10,000 for an effective replacement of expensive ivory used to make billiard balls. They never succeeded in winning the prize but successfully marketed celluloid. Substitution and imitation were the goals of the nascent plastics industry. Celluloid succeeded because it became progressively less expensive than the tortoise shell, ivory, coral and amber that it imitated.

It was Du Pont, a US company, who paved the way for the use of plastics as a material in its own right. Du Pont’s nitro -cellulose plants, active in the manufacture of explosives during the 1st World War (1914-18), sought peacetime applications. Through a policy of expansion that had started in 1910 Du Pont obtained exclusive licences in a number of cellulose-based industries, as well as artificial leather (pyroxylin-coated fabric), artificial silk (viscose rayon), cellophane film, and paints and lacquers. Du Pont emphasised celluloid’s innovative potential as ‘a chemical product which science has developed and perfected’ or more grandly, a ‘wonderful material, the product of American cotton fields and chemical plants’.

Cellulose nitrate had one great drawback, its flammability. In 1915 when Du Pont bought the major celluloid manufacturing facility in the US in Arlington, Virginia, it had a history of explosions, worker deaths and injury, destruction of plant and consequent rebuilding. Consumers also had to be wary - there were reports of an Ohio congressman whose celluloid visor caught fire as he tried to light a cigar, engulfing his head in flames. Cellulose acetate was developed to meet this problem. Among its early uses were as ‘ safety film’ and ‘dope’ to stiffen the wings of aeroplanes. It was initially fabricated like celluloid in the form of rod, sheet or tube but later became available as a moulding powder in various degrees of hardness, which could be quickly or economically shaped by injection moulding.

The first era of synthetic plastic belongs to the Belgian inventor, Leo H. Baekland. Aware of his goal from the beginning, the chemist spent years of research work to satisfy the world’s desire for a material with ‘properties found wanting in other materials’. Baekland wanted to call the result, a condensation product of the reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, oxybenzylmethyl - englycolanhydride, but mercifully settled for Bakelite. It could be moulded into any shape but became hard in its final phase. It resisted heat, electricity and harsh chemicals. ‘The Material of a Thousand Uses’. as ‘nearly immortal, possessing the ultimate degree of chemical stability’. This miraculous material not only substituted for inferior materials like shells, hard rubber, celluloid and porcelain, it also ‘extended control over nature’ by harnessing electricity for lighting, manufacture, transportation and communication. Baekland had presented humanity, ‘with a better material than any which nature unaided has provided’. The material that Baekland had ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ in 1907 was a product of chemical synthesis, a substance distinct from its reactive parts, a substance with no direct analogue in nature; the first synthetic plastic.

Early growth of the plastic market
Plastic became a household material in the US and Europe during the years between the two World Wars (1918 - 39), an era when varied trends converged to form a consumer culture. The developing media industry, especially film, was indebted to plastic for its very existence. Advertising reached a public whose experience of the automobile, radio and movies disposed it to a universal identity based on mass- produced goods rather than local tradition. Electrification triggered demands for domestic appliances on easy credit terms.

Technical improvements merged with annual style changes to create a sense of unending material progress. Plastic, its form and colours proliferating as the consumer culture emerged into consciousness, embodied that culture and visually distinguished it as unique.

In 1927 publicists for the industry proclaimed a Plastic Age equal in historical significance to earlier ages of bronze, iron, gunpowder or steel - echoed by Indian chemistry academic M.M. Sharma at a conference in Delhi, 1994. In 1942, William Hayes, an economist and historian of the chemical industry declared that synthetic materials would have ‘ more effect on the lives of our great - great - grandchildren than Hitler or Mussolini’. He claimed further that these new materials could ‘ compel the course of history as greatly as any man.

By 1940 many other substances had joined celluloid and Bakelite, each with unique qualities, to create a varied plastic spectrum. Colourful cast phenolic resins provided an alternative to Bakelite’s industrial black or brown. Melamine resins were developed in the mid - 1930s, offering the same range of colours and were more resistant to heat, water and detergents. In the UK plastics became socially acceptable when Queen Mary was publicised buying a plastic picnic set in 1931.

It was still a small industry. Although annual production inceased tenfold in the US between 1921 and 1939, reaching 106,000 tonnes with a sales value of US$478 million, it totalled less than 1% of the total tonnage of steel.

During the 1930s oil-based thermoplastics were developed and started to appear in the market. One of the firsts of the ‘poly’ era was polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Originally observed by chemists in the 1870s, it did not become a commercial reality until suitable plasticisers were developed. Early PVC was rigid and struggled to find a market - one suggestion was as an adhesive (with rubber and cellulose derivatives) for sticking patches on worn clothes.

At the same time as PVC was being commercially developed in the 1930s, Du Pont launched the first polyamide - Nylon 66 - perfected after a minute analysis of silk by their chemist, Wallace Carothers. A few months’ later German researchers succeeded in producing the first Nylon 6 from caprolactam.

Another material with a lengthy gestation was polystyrene. Originally discovered by a German apothecary, Simon, another German, organic chemist Staudinger, realised that the solid that Simon had isolated from the natural resin was composed of long chains of styrene molecules. Commercial production polymerisation still had to wait until 1937.

Despite these innovations, the stable, inert, and nearly immortal thermosets of Bakelite and other phenolic and urea resins, were by far the most prominent plastics up until World War 2 (1939 - 45).

Plastics go Corporate
Just prior to World War 2 there was a fundamental shift in the way the new plastics came into existence. Figures such as Hyatt and Baekland sought to seek substitutes for specific materials. Small entrepreneurial companies focused on supplying a limited range of chemical materials ready for moulding or fabricating by others. The new generation of chemists, employed by emerging industrial conglomerates, worked outwards from chemical discoveries to the marketplace. When they found something of interest, they looked for ways to commercialise it. They were driven not so much by market demand as by the pressure to create markets.

This shift derived in part from the greater sophistication of chemists, who were beginning to devise general theories governing polymerisation of long -chained molecules. This owed as much to the rise of large vertically integrated chemical companies whose influence spanned many industries. In 1907 Baekland had thought nothing of starting out as an individual to develop a specific plastic based on a specific chemical process. By the late 1930s the push to exploit basic chemical raw materials, that derived from coal, natural gas or oil had submerged such individual efforts. The development of new plastics occurred within a complex world of international corporate rivalries, among the chemical fraternity and agreements that traded rights in one plastic for those of another. Nascent Multi National Corporations (MNCs), Du Pont, Union Carbide in the US, ICI and IG Farben in Europe were starting to carve out the new market. Baekland sold out to Union Carbide in 1939.

Ford’s Bio-plastic Car
Yet while petrochemical giants were emerging and taking a grip on the production and market for the new materials, there was still room for the odd maverick. Henry Ford, Immortalised as the the inventor of the mass-produced car, had a vision of cars being made from plastics made from plants. In the 1930s he pre-empted the bio-plastic revolution by some 60 years, creating what was labelled by one newspaper as, ‘part salad part automobile’.

Always a champion of the American farmer, Ford aimed at using agricultural products as raw materials and often claimed it would be ‘ possible to soon grow most of an automobile’. Sometime in the mid-1930s he converted a glass plant to the manufacture of cassein-type protein plastic with soya bean based meal as a base. The typical Ford car of 1936 contained ten to fifteen pounds of this soya bean plastic in window frames, steering wheel, gearship knob, horn button, accelerator pedal and electrical parts.

Early in November 1940 Ford invited a group of reporters to witness a demonstration of the plastic car’s unique potential. He picked up an axe and swung it with all his might into the trunk panel of a custom built car. Rather than crumpling and losing its paint like an ordinary sheet-metal body, the back of the car rebounded back into shape as good as new because it was made of a tough phenol plastic with its black colouring imbedded throughout. Ford pointed in triumph to the undamaged trunk and annnounced that he would soon be mass-producing plastic bodied cars.

Despite its robustness, the car was never put into production as US mobilisation for World War 2 intervened and the mass production of conventional vehicles was prioritised.

The Acceleration of War
It was the militarisation of Europe, Japan and the US climaxing in World War 2 that spurred the development of the synthetics plastic industry. Natural materials became scarce as geo-political factors cut various countries off from traditional supplies. PVC was found to be an effective substitute for rubber, particularly cable insulation and sheathing. Nylons partly replaced wool and cottons. But it wasn’t only substitution - new materials were needed with different properties, particularly for communications, aeroplanes and armour. UK’s ICI Alkali Division produced polyethylene in 1935, a material whose properties were to become vital for the wartime development of radar. Another ICI development was polymethol methacrylate, commonly called acrylic or perspex. First produced in the UK in 1934, its shatter resistant properties were soon in demand for aircraft canopies and all kind of protective screens.

Annual production of plastics in the US nearly tripled between 1940 and 1945, a year in which about 370,000 tonnes went to such military uses as aircraft cockpit covers, mortar fuses, bayonet scabbards, helmet liners and even the atom bomb.

Forced demand and expansion of the industry led manufacturers to greater understanding of plastics. To procure technically sophisticated equipment on a scale suitable for global warfare, governments had to acquire identical resins and interchangeable mouldings from any different material suppliers and processors. This necessitated regularising chemical definitions, physical specifications, and methods of testing a potentially confusing, ever increasing variety of plastics. War needs accelerated development such as extrusion and injection moulding of polyethylene, low-pressure moulding of glass reinforced polyester and vacuum forming of acrylic sheet. Material suppliers devised dozens of new formulations of older plastics like phenol formaldehyde and cellulose acetate.

The development of synthetic rubbers that took place during the war effectively crushed the natural rubber market. Cut-off from supplies of raw material in countries such as Malaya, Germany and Russia developed synthetic rubbers in order ot be self-sufficient. In the US production of a styrene-butadiene copolymer (GR-S later called SBR) went from zero in 1941 to over 700,000 tonnes in 1945.

Although natural rubber regained some market share post-war, synthetics had gained the upper hand. One of the accomplishments of the SBR programme was the conversion of many scientists and engineers into polymer engineers, chemists and physicists. After the war their interest remained in the field so that the rather thin pre-war ranks of textile, rubber and paint researchers were suddenly swelled by a large number of highly trained people wedded to polymers and not to any one industrial application or product base.

Post war expansion: unfulfillled wants and desires
Plastics expanded exponentially after the war, with a greater growth curve than that of the GNP of the US. A few days before the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War 2 in 1945, a gathering of market experts listened to J.W.McCoy, a Du Pont vice-president: business would be good for sometime owing to ‘a great backlog of unfilled wants’. Satisfying desire for cars, washing machines, radios and other consumer goods would create, ‘an upward spiral of productivity, raising the standard of living, increasing the national income and creating more jobs’. However, McCoy feared that ‘a satisfied people is a stagnant people and after satisfying immediate desires, merchandisers would have to see to it that Americans are never satisfied’.

Yet most of the best plastics had gone into the war effort. By the time the troops came home the public had tired of shower heads made from cellulose acetate that softened in hot water, with laminates that separated when wet or stressed, with small mouldings so devoid of resin that they shattered when dropped. Plastics’ image took its first battering- on quality.

These were the formative years of the so-called ‘baby -boomers’ the generation born around the end of World War 2, an era of shoddy goods. Consumers expressed disdain for tacky raincoats and shower curtains made from improperly plasticised PVC sheeting. During the Christmas season of 1948, hundreds of consumers returned defective tree lights whose bulbs were hooded with thermoplastic birds, santas, and bells that had softened or become deformed or charred. The new thermoplastics were too unreliable compared to dependable celluloid or Bakelite. They lacked the latter’s hardness and were sensitive in varying degrees to heat, chemicals, water and sunlight.

In response, the plastic industry sought to educate the post war generation. ‘The right plastic for the right purpose’. Through new advertising and PR tools, radio, print media and TV, the plastic industry fought back with particular appeal to the modern housewife, portraying plastics as sqeaky clean and hygienic. Advertising proclaimed the era of ‘Easy Upkeep’. Where every plastic surface could be kept sparkling clean by merely the wipe of a damp cloth.

As plastic utopians had predicted, synthetic materials invaded the US home after the war, often in the guise of traditional materials. PVC masqueraded as ceramic and leather in floor tiles and upholstery, as wood grain in laminate walls and formica tabletops. Baby boomers played with Wham-O hula-hoops and frisbees, Barbie dolls and Revel airline models, Lego blocks and Mattel machine guns. Kids ate breakfast from formica dinettes, spilled milk from polyethylene tumblers onto PVC flloors, and left for school hauling their leatherette sachels, clutching Bic biros. For the family, there was tupperware, garbage bins and laundry baskets, melamine dishes, appliance housing, cling film and dry cleaning bags, picnic coolers, scuff-proof luggage, naugahyde furniture, mylar recording tape, corfam shoes, shrink wrapped meats, styrofoam egg cartons, artifical christmas trees. Even life’s greatest status symbol, the automobile took on more plastic every year - that desirable new car smell came from (probably) poisonous plasticisers migrating into the air.

Europe displayed a similar enthusiasm. In 1957 French philosopher, Roland Barthes, visited a plastic trade show in Paris and was inspired by the sight of perfectly formed plastic consumer products emerging from an injection-moulding machine. ‘Despite having the names of Greek shepherds (polystyrene and polyvinyl) plastic is in essence the stuff of alchemy’. The sight of each form emerging from the machine was like a miracle, a transformation of nature.

Barthes further eulogised. ‘The quick change artistry of plastic is absolute. It can become buckets as well as jewels. Hence a perpetual amazemant, the wonder of man at the proliferating forms of matter, and the connections he makes between the singular of the origin and the plural of the effects. And this amazement is a pleasurable one, since the scope of the transformation gives man the measure of his power, and the very journey of plastic (through the extrusion machine) gives him the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through nature’.

A proliferation of consumer goods created an inflationary culture that invested ever more of its psychological well being into acquiring material objects. But paradoxically, it was mostly invested into objects of such low value as to encourage their displacement, their disposal, and their quick and total consumption, in order to go out and buy more. It was a perfect ever-hungry market. Plastic became the material of choice. The material’s virtues were seemingly limitless. In was inexpensive because it was derived from a seemingly endless supply of oil. It was less solid or intractable than wood or steel. It was free of traditional preconceptions regarding its use and could be moulded into into any shape a restless drive for novelty might conceive. It was so lightweight and in some forms so insubstantial as to be discarded without a second thought. The new culture gloried in its own transience.

Plastics reached their cultural apogee in futuristic products such as waterbeds, inflatable domes and images of PVC clad go-go dancers. The ‘Plastic as Plastic’ exhibition in New York in 1968 gloried in the possibilities of plastics, epitomised by a room of sprayed polyurethane foam, described as the first ‘completely abstract, totally synthetic environment’ in the history of construction.

First concerns: aesthetic and cultural
A decade after Barthe’s essay was written, perception of plastics began to change from curiosity and wonder to contempt and revulsion, especially in the US. The word plastic had become both a description of a material and a noun meaning fake or insincere. Plastic became a metaphor for a spiritually hollow society worshipping material consumption. This backlash against plastics began in the late 1960s and early 70s in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe, just as the ‘baby-boomers’ arrived at maturity. Their first concerns were cultural and aesthetic.

Expansion of plastics mirrored a civilisation in pursuit of material goods. To some young people, especially those of the middle classes who enjoyed the benefits of the post-war economy, American values seemed superficial, ‘as phony as wood-grain laminate or PVC leatherette’. The material did not ring true, nor did the society that produced it. Plastic was the embodiment of everything phony in American life, its emotional shams and makeshift gratifications, its false fronts and Tudor suburbs, its willingness to let ‘cash value’ determine values. ‘Plastic, man!’ was a term of abuse used by those of the ‘hippie’ counterculture.

The editor of ‘Modern Plastics’, Sidney Gross, complained that plastic’s reputation ‘remained as low as it can get despite a phenomenal growth rate’, ‘Somebody must like the stuff’ was his grumpy conclusion. ‘If they hate plastics so much now come they are buying more and more of it?’ Indeed, by 1979, plastic consumption had surpassd that of steel in the US.

By then the consumer had little choice. A poor image had limited effect because consumers could only choose from goods presented in the market place. If manufacturers chose plastic- whether for versatility, lower cost, greater profit or whatever reason - then there was no choice but to buy plastic or not buy at all. Manufacturers chose plastic not essentially because it used lighter, cheaper raw materials or because it made better products, but because one-shot automatic moulding operations eliminated the cost of separate fabricating, finishing and assembly operations. This reduced labour costs and made plastic products cheaper than either products made from traditional or bio-based raw materials.

Environmental and health problems with plastics
In 1970 shortly after the first ‘Earth Day’. US furniture designer Paul Mayen complained about the havoc wreaked on the environment by an ‘Inflationary mentality’. As he saw it, the economic success of technical processes capable of fabricating plastic furniture in increasing numbers depended on popular acceptance of the idea of ‘expendable furniture’. In a supreme irony, while a fast-paced lifestyle led people ‘ to cry out for more and more of these throwaway objects, such things had become more durable than us, our governments, and our society’. Mayen argued that society had to stop making things ‘with such a high pollution potential’ and instead develop plastics with a ‘high reconversion potential’. Plastics were starting to litter inner city streets, highways and fields with no possibilty of their being absorbed by nature as did traditional bio-based materials or metals that could easlly be recycled.

In the 1970s and 80s evidence arose about specific health problems caused by plastics. It started with news of plastic bags suffocating babies and health problems from accidental fires; then progressed to workers’ contracting death-causing diseases in the PVC industry. By the 1990s with growing developments in analytic sciences, attention became focused on specific problems with certain plastics. Regulators started to limit and ban exposure to and use of many harmful chemicals used in plastic processes. PVC in particular, because of its chlorine base was becoming dubbed ‘the poison plastic’.

In the late1980s the influence on the global climate of burning and using fossil fuels began to be calculated. At the same time awareness grew that we were fast exhausting the world’s ‘natural capital’ and as a consequence accelerating environmental degradation. With its dependence on oil for manufacture,the plastics industry is a minor part of this problem. Yet conversely, the essential use of plastics in the computer and IT industries has led to a greater non-material based economy via the internet and emerging other forms of communication and thus less use of finite resources, saving paper and postal transport, downloading CDs and DVDs, rather than buying plastic materials.

Disney World: the apotheosis of plastic
By far the most influential developments in plastics, both in technology and marketing orginated in the ‘developed’ countries. This is inextricably linked to their dominant control of the global oil supply - the base material of thermoplastics.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this culture is Disney World, whose fundamental message is that technology can give us more reality than nature can. Disney World’s purified and sanitised simulations, where Mississippi riverboats, fairy tale castles, rocket ships and Main St, US can equally fill the reality of a single moment.

Hardly surprising, much of Disney World is made of plastic: fibreglass reinforced polyester faces the exterior and interiors of most structures. The soaring blue spires vaguely suggesting slate have been fabricated from sheets of PVC and acrylic and designed to withstand 120 mile-an-hour winds. Simulation entered a new realm at the Epcot Center that offfered the attraction of a corporate-driven, high-tech utopian future and the pleasures of a risk-free photogenic visit to romantic countries around the world. Take Italy - made from reinforced polyester - where across a tiny Piazza San Marco from the Doge’s palace stands a two-story stucco country house (polyester). Its water stained walls (painted with plastic paints) show trowel marks, ancient cracks and scattered pockmarks. In such details Disney’s engineers exhibited enormous confidence. They were so certain of control over the past, present and future, so convinced of reality’s plasticity that they dared to simulate the process of decay.

In April 1998 Disney opened a ‘real’ animal kingdom in Florida US. At the centre is a 14 storey, 145-foor high ‘Tree of Life’, an imitation Banyan tree. In an interview the then chairman of Disney, Michael Eisner, said, ‘The last time somebody created a river and a park and a world like this, it was as you know, found in the Book of Genesis’. Did the Disney chairman really see himself as the heir of the Christian God?