History and Evolution of Plastics

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Humans have been using plastics or polymers, in different forms, for centuries if not millennia. A look back into history books suggests, Plastic or “pliable and easily shaped” materials such as chewing gum and shellac have been used by early civilizations. Cellulose extracted from wood has been extensively used throughout history to make parchment and paper. The first manmade polymer called Parkesine was invented in the middle of the nineteenth century. Parkesine soon evolved into celluloid, a material that enabled the development of and has since become synonymous with the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until 40 years later that the first fully synthetic polymer called Bakelite was invented at the turn of the century.

It took another 30 years of rigorous experimentation to invent a wide variety of plastics, which are commonly used today, such as PVC, PP, PE, PS etc. World War II necessitated the accelerated development of plastics in order to act as alternatives and preserve scarce natural resources. Nylon replaced silk in parachutes, ropes and body armor while Plexiglas replaced the glass used in aircrafts. According to some estimates the usage of plastics jumped multifold
during the war. Peacetime brought its own challenges in the form of industries that were looking for a market. The versatility of plastics ensured that they quickly found usage in commercial applications. The ubiquitous Tupperware jar, Velcro, expanded PS (thermocol), polyester and the hula-hoop were all material and marketing inventions of this period.

My father and brother have been my guiding lights in this industry. There has been a lot of learning and knowledge that has enabled me to understand the dynamics of this industry. This understanding also creates the basis for new
ideas. The long evenings spent discussing with Dad and other pioneers of the plastic industry has enlightened me about what happened in the past few decades. Just the last few years have seen numerous inventions of new kinds of
plastics and the same plastics finding various new applications. Plastics have edged out other materials and industries altogether on account of their versatility and easy processing.

Plastic jars and bottles have significantly simplified the storage of fluids and food and extended their life; plastic furniture has made easier the task of room decoration and made it more durable. Plastic piping has ensured that we get reliable water supply for a lifetime without having to worry about corrosion and leakages. Plastic dashboards have decreased the weight of cars and reduced fuel consumption while making the car itself safer for the user. And wherever plastics have been more expensive than their conventional alternatives, they have convinced the user to adapt them due to their extended life cycle. The long life cycle of plastics is a double-edged sword though since it results in improperly discarded products damaging the environment. The slow natural degradation of plastics ensures that they stay pretty much as is for a very long time in landfills and water bodies.


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