History of Plastics: A Period of Innovation
Alexandre Parks is credited for creating the first type of plastic. His work, at the origin of the plastics revolution, led to the discovery of a substance called Parkesine, a semi-synthetic thermoplastic material based on cellulose. Revealed to the public in 1862 at the London World Exhibition, its discovery immediately piqued interest. Combs, hair clips and engraved plaques were among the presented objects. At the time, it was thought that this plastic would be just as useful as rubber, but much less expensive to produce. Finally, Parkesine became obsolete because of the exorbitant cost of materials required to manufacture it.
Leo Baekland is the creator of the first fully synthetic resin, Bakelite, made from phenol and formaldehyde. Once heated, the resin quickly took the shape of its container. This versatile material, which was a thermosetting plastic, did not base, did not boil and did not dissolve by solvents. Bakelite was widely used in many applications, such as cameras, saxophone mouthpieces, electric guitars and rotary phones for instance, because of its properties of heat resistance and insulation. Bakelite is still used today to produce products such as dominoes or parts of games like chess or checkers.
Plastics have revolutionized our lives. Communication, travel, recreation, hygiene and health, environmental protection, and human activities are all indebted to this material. The 1950’s brought mass consumption and diversification. The 1973 oil crisis marked a watershed in the history of consumption in general, and plastics in particular. As for alternative materials and disposable low-end materials, they will become increasingly sophisticated materials with specific and irreplaceable properties. Today polymers are products of high technology capable of unmatched prowess in all areas of health, automotive, construction, aerospace, decoration, packaging, sports, etc… Everyday, researchers and scientists continue to expand the frontiers of knowledge, from nanotechnology to medicine, in all areas where plastics can help human beings. They are currently working on solutions that we are difficult to imagine now, but that will soon be part of our daily lives. In medicine, it plastics could even be used in the composition of an artificial blood.
The pioneering spirit of plastics has not disappeared. Plastic products are practical and well suited to our hectic pace of life. As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, manufacturers such as Cereplast are seeking innovative and green applications for plastics, as well as new ways to reuse, recycle and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. A prefix now seems secure the future of this material. The use of bioplastics, less environmentally damaging and less dependent on oil prices, could explode in the coming years, says Frederic Scheer, CEO and Chairman of Cereplast. Cereplast provides two families of bioplastic resins – Cereplast Compostables® Resins and Cereplast Sustainables™ Resins, which includes Cereplast Hybrid Resins®. Cereplast Sustainables™ Resins are not only incredibly durable, but they are also cost-competitive with traditional petroleum-based plastic resin. They are biobased compounds containing renewable sources such as starch, wheat, and potatoes and can be processed at the same cycle time as traditional plastics. They require less energy in the production process by using significantly lower machine temperatures.
Science is pushing the limits even further and continuously coming up with innovative feedstocks for the production of bioplastics. Cereplast researchers continually develop and test new biobased materials that can be used as alternatives to fossil fuels as key ingredients in plastic. Soon Cereplast will launch a new category of non-food crop materials, which includes algae. Cereplast algae-based resins will replace up to 50% or more of the petroleum content used in traditional plastic resins. Other potential future biopolymers being investigated by Cereplast include PHA, PHBV, PPC, and succinic acid. Some researchers have created strong biodegradable plastics from fruit, chicken feathers, ground-up animal meat, and even raw sewage.
Many green initiatives continue to emerge, and the plastics industry is at the forefront of many of them. Architect Zaha Hadid decided to design shoes made from recycled plastic. The ethical and chic shoe collection MELISSA was produced and exported to over 80 countries over the past 25 years!
The history of plastic continues to evolve. In the absence of being able to move away from this material, human beings must adapt to new constraints: from global warming to the inevitable increase in oil prices. As such, I think the 21st century will show the rise of bioplastics.