A brief history of plastic: Successes and failures



An impartial look at plastic, celebrating its successes and pointing out its failings, was the subject of an exhibition at the V&A Museum in Dundee – CIWM Vice President Tim Walker recaps the show.

At 7:30 am on a cold morning in Dundee, I found myself mulling over the question, “What exactly is plastic?”. A common definition is: “a material that can be moulded into new shapes”; but these days we tend to think more narrowly about synthetic polymers and the problems they can cause.

I was going back to basics so that, by the time I arrived at my destination – the V&A’s exhibition Plastic: Remaking Our World – I would have an open mind and be better able to learn more about this wonderful yet vilified material.

The V&A curators did a great job of putting together a fascinating chronology of plastic: what it is; where and when it was first used; how it has transformed into the materials we know today.

CIWM Vice President Tim Walker, Acting Chief Executive at arc21.

I saw fascinating examples of natural materials that become malleable when heated and were once shaped into all kinds of everyday products – substances such as shellac, ivory, horn, and tortoiseshell, which one doesn’t usually consider “a plastic” but which clearly meet the definition.

I always thought Bakelite was the first plastic, but seeing things in the context of what came before was a complete eye-opener. For hundreds of years, tribes in Malaysia had been using hardened rubber to fashion implements.

This was supplanted when the first semi-synthetic plastic was produced in the middle of the 19th century by Alexander Parkes. He mixed nitrocellulose with camphor to create mouldable sheets, which could be dyed in different colours. This was used as an alternative to natural materials – in bone knife handles, for example – and given the name Parkesine.

Dr Leo Baekeland followed in the early 20th century, developing the first fully synthetic plastic: polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, which you might know better as Bakelite. It was a brittle material, so the resin was blended with wood shavings, which not only added strength but also wonderful, swirly brown colours.

In the 1960s, plastics helped the space race and DuPont promoted plastic fabrics as the clothing of the future.

Bakelite was used for moulded products such as telephones and light fittings. Subsequent rising demand (and the occasional war) only broadened its appeal, and by 1945 polythene and nylon were in use too.

At this time, the petrochemical industry invested heavily in plastics, stimulating demand for an array of new products, from funky coloured radios to moulded chairs – the age of plastic had arrived. In the 1960s, plastics helped the space race and DuPont promoted plastic fabrics as the clothing of the future.

It was also around this time that scientists first found traces of plastic in the sea and the consequences of the mismanagement of plastic became increasingly apparent as the decades passed. 

In 1950, two million tonnes of plastic were produced globally. By 2020, that figure was around 367 million tonnes – half of which is thought to be single-use. Somewhere along the way, the bubble burst and plastic’s value was undermined by its ubiquity. Everywhere scientists looked – from human breast milk to the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench and the snows of Everest – they found plastic.

Plastic’s environmental impact was covered well in the exhibition. Alongside striking imagery, information boards and a powerful diorama of a polluted beach, I also learned about initiatives to clean up the oceans.

At the end of the show, it was clear how plastic needs to be managed and controlled at all stages of its life.

Longevity, take-back schemes and upcycling are all covered, as are manufacturers looking to use secondary raw materials. Also covered was the growing range of non-fossil fuel plastics made from, for example, fungal mycelium or biodegradable polymers. Emphasis was placed on designers and how they can shape our consumption habits.

At the end of the show, it was clear how plastic needs to be managed and controlled at all stages of its life. An ideal candidate for EPR?

All in all, a great exhibition with much merit and a reminder that many people are unaware of what went on in previous years and take today as a baseline. We can’t forget the past if we are to get through our current consumption-rich phase into a more sustainable place.

Understanding where we have come from is critical to this journey and I heartily recommend exhibitions like this one to help with this.

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