Plastic paradox

When humanity invented plastic, it seemed like the solution to every problem — it was light-weight, water-proof, easy to manufacture, could be moulded into any shape, increased the shelf-life of food, and was handy for storing just about anything.

Paradoxically, a material that is so tough and long-lasting is the one which we throw away every day, in the form of packaging, garbage bags, straws, and a hundred other items of convenience. We manufacture something that lasts a hundred years simply in order to throw it away after a few minutes of use. In fact, every bit of plastic that was ever made is still on earth with us, and that’s a huge problem we don’t know what to do about!

But how did it all start?

The origins

In 1869, a company in New York advertised a $10,000 prize for anyone who could find a substitute for ivory. Back then, ivory was the choice of material for making hard, durable items. It was especially popular for making chessboard pawns, cutlery handles, jewellery, piano keys, and even billiard balls.

Although ivory looks elegant and beautiful, the ugly truth is that it is obtained by slaughtering wild elephants. Hence, the need for a substitute.

John Wesely Hyatt, an American inventor, took up the challenge. He had heard of a substance called Parkesine invented by British scientist Alexander Parkes. He had been experimenting with cellulose, the material that plant cell walls are made up of and managed to separate the long strands of cellulose and mould them into a variety of shapes from buttons to decorative figurines.

Hyatt went one step further and treated the cellulose with camphor. This improved the material’s malleability — that is, it could be easily pressed into shape without cracking or breaking. This was especially good for making billiard balls as the sport was gaining popularity and killing elephants was not cool any more.


Cellulose is a polymer. This means that it is made up of a long chain of molecules, like a bicycle chain, except that it seems endless. This is what makes plastic both durable and easy to shape into any form or thickness. Once the underlying chemistry was understood, it was only a matter of time before someone replicated this structure in a laboratory. This is exactly what Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, did in the early 1900s, when he was trying to synthesise a material that was heat-resistant and a good insulator.

Baekeland put two carbon-based monomers, phenol and formaldehyde, through a condensation reaction. The formaldehyde helped bind the ring structure of phenol into a rigid three-dimensional polymer. He called it Bakelite. When hot, this material could be moulded into any shape, and when cooled, it became hard, and resistant to heat and electricity. It was the perfect material for use in the electrical industry and for making handles of heating implements such as cookers. It was also ideally suited for mass production as it was completely synthesised, that is, it contained no molecules found in nature. For his invention of Bakelite he has been called “The Father of the Plastics Industry”.

Soon many chemists started experimenting with various monomers to obtain exciting new materials.

In the 1930s, Wallace Carruthers, an American scientist, used adipic acid and diaminohexane to create a new fabric known as Nylon. Because it was lightweight, strong, and durable, it became the preferred choice of material for a variety of items including clothing, bags, luggage, and most importantly — parachutes! This proved invaluable during World War II, not just for parachutes, but also body armour, helmet liners, smoke screens, water-proofing material, tents and ropes.

Around this time, nearly every laboratory in the western world was engaged in plastic research. Cellophane, Plexiglass, Teflon, Styrofoam, PET, Polypropelene are all different forms of plastic that emerged during this era.

It was so easy to make — a condensation reaction between carbon based monomers produces a polymer. Because there are so many monomers, and so many ways in which they combine, there are so many different kinds of polymers.

You could make just about anything!

Champion of the earth

This was revolutionary. People thought this was a great idea. It was not only a material that made life easy; it would also save nature! Synthetic plastic was seen as a great substitute for wood and animal based products, because theoretically, the supply never ends — so we get all that we want without using up natural resources!

Over the years, the math didn’t really add up. Yes, we got a lot of convenience, but that resulted in a lot of trash piling up, getting burnt, causing pollution, and harming all life. Not exactly a saviour of nature, was it?

What now?

For 2,00,000 years, humans did pretty well without plastic. Even as recently as 50 years ago, we didn’t have plastic carry bags, cling wrap, zip-lock pouches, disposable cutlery and water bottles, and we survived. But the plastic we have produced over the last 50 years has piled up to such an extent that at the current rate of use-and-throw, there will soon be more plastics in the ocean than fish!

How did we come to this? Why does it seem as if life is impossible without plastic? Do you think you can live comfortably and well without plastic? Why don’t you write and tell us how we can stop using unnecessary plastic? Write to us at

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 6:22:26 AM |

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