Plastics: Then and Now

Various materials have been used to produce and manufacture goods throughout the years. (left) Billiard balls used to be made from ivory, which was harvested from elephants. (center) Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, was a popluar choice in manufactured goods like the early plastic telephones and radios. (right) Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticized in the early 20th century, is widely used in piping systems.
Various materials have been used to produce and manufacture goods throughout the years. (left) Billiard balls used to be made from ivory, which was harvested from elephants. (center) Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, was a popluar choice in manufactured goods like the early plastic telephones and radios. (right) Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticized in the early 20th century, is widely used in piping systems.

When you think of the word plastic, what comes to mind? Instead of one specific item, I’m sure a variety of different objects come to mind, from bags and containers to pipes and fabrics. These different forms of plastics often have vastly different characteristics. For instance, when changing the battery of a television remote, you have to be careful in handling and removing the back cover in order to not break the small clip that holds the cover in place. But we also have heavy-duty portable battery systems that can be tossed around and taken outdoors for camping or backup power. Plastics have undoubtedly come a long way in technological advances. To understand some of these changes, it is important to know where it all started and the different plastics developed throughout the years.

What exactly are plastics?

Modern plastics encompass a group of materials that are composed of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymers. The word plastic itself is derived from the Greek word “plastikos,” which means pliable and capable of being molded. With this definition, some natural plastics popularly used since antiquity are animal horns (e.g., ivory), shellac, rubber, amber, and tortoiseshell. Animal horns became malleable as they were heated and were ideal for items such as billiard balls, piano keys, and extravagant combs (1). However, with the Industrial Revolution increasing the scale of manufactured goods, animals such as elephants were in danger of extinction as their tusks were harvested for those goods.

Synthetic polymers

To solve this environmental and ecological problem, celluloid was developed in the mid-19th century as an alternative to ivory for the production of billiard balls. Celluloid is made from nitrocellulose (or cellulose nitrate) derived from plant fibers such as cotton or wood pulp. British metallurgist Alexander Parkes created the first celluloid and patented his discovery in 1862 as Parkesine (1). However, the development of celluloids as we know them today is credited to American inventor John Wesley Hyatt and his brother Isaiah, who improved upon Parkes’s innovation.

The Hyatt brothers treated nitrocellulose with camphor, which made the material more stable and less prone to cracking. John Wesley Hyatt patented his invention in 1869 as “celluloid” (2) and, in 1870, formed the Albany Dental Plate Company to manufacture goods with his new material, such as false teeth (as the name suggests), billiard balls, and piano keys. Celluloid was a favored material that was later used in a wide range of products, including photographic film, toys, jewelry, and even clothing.

The move to fully synthetic

The first entirely synthetic plastic — where none of the polymers are derived from natural sources — was invented in 1907 in New York by Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland (1). Later deemed “The Father of the Plastics Industry,” Baekeland was interested in finding a synthetic replacement for the natural resins used in insulating electrical wiring and other industrial applications. He experimented with various combinations of phenol and formaldehyde, eventually developing a new type of resin that he called Bakelite. This resin had several unique properties that made it ideal for a wide range of applications.

Bakelite was an incredibly versatile material that could be molded into almost any shape while still retaining its strength and durability. It was also resistant to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion, making it perfect for use in electrical insulation and other industrial applications. Bakelite was quickly embraced by manufacturers and designers around the world, leading to a boom in its production and use in a vast array of products. One of the most famous uses of Bakelite was in the production of early plastic telephones, radios, and other consumer goods. Bakelite’s distinctive appearance, with its smooth, shiny surface and bright colors, made it a popular choice for designers looking to create stylish and modern products.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

PVC is a synthetic polymer that was first synthesized in 1872 by German chemist Eugen Baumann while experimenting with vinyl chloride. However, Baumann did not realize the significance of his discovery at the time. It wasn’t until 1912 when another German chemist, Friedrich Klatte, rediscovered PVC and started to investigate its potential uses, after which he then patented it (3). This laid the foundation for the development of PVC as a synthetic polymer.

Throughout the early 20th century, PVC remained largely undiscovered and underutilized due to the challenges of processing it into useful products. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a breakthrough occurred when American chemist Waldo Semon, working for B.F. Goodrich, developed a method for plasticizing PVC by blending it with various additives (3). This made PVC more versatile and easier to work with, opening up a wide range of potential applications.

PVC’s versatility and durability made it a popular material for various industries, including construction, automotive, and consumer goods. The development of suspension polymerization processes — where mechanical agitation is used to mix monomers in a liquid phase, suspending them in the liquid and allowing them to polymerize — further improved the production of PVC, making it more cost-effective and scalable. This led to a rapid expansion of PVC production worldwide, solidifying its position as one of the most widely used plastics. Today, PVC is used in countless applications, from pipes and fittings in plumbing and construction to window frames, flooring, and medical devices. Its versatility, durability, and cost-effectiveness have made it a popular choice for manufacturers around the world.

Biodegradable plastics and bioplastics

The invention of biodegradable plastics was a response to the growing environmental concerns surrounding traditional plastics. Traditional plastics have contributed to widespread pollution of landfills, oceans, and other natural environments with plastic waste. The need for a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics drove the invention of biodegradable plastics such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). PHA is a type of biopolymer produced by bacterial fermentation of renewable resources like sugar or starch. PHA polymers were first identified by Maurice Lemoigne in 1926 after discovering phyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) (4).

PHA has many applications, including packaging, disposable utensils, medical devices, and agricultural products. Unlike traditional plastics, PHA can be broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms in the environment, returning to its natural components of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The invention of biodegradable plastics and bioplastics like PHA has significantly impacted the way we think about plastic production and waste management. By using renewable resources and creating biodegradable materials, we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, decrease plastic pollution, and create a more sustainable future for generations to come.

What awaits us in the future?

Significant improvements have been made to the plastics industry within the last two centuries (Figure 1). Due to concerns about plastic pollution throughout the environment — such as plastic waste, which makes up 80% of all marine pollution (5) — the research and production of biodegradable plastics and bioplastics in particular have been more favorable in recent years. However, they make up a small portion of the total world production of plastics due to their low yields and high cost to manufacture (4). Advances in microbial and metabolic engineering are helping to change this, and we will likely see many more sustainable plastics in the future.

  1. Science Museum, “The Age of Plastic: From Parkesine to Pollution,” Science Museum, (Oct. 11, 2019).
  2. Science History Institute, “History and Future of Plastics,” Science History Institute, (accessed Apr. 01, 2024).
  3. Britannica, “PVC,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (accessed Apr. 02, 2024).
  4. Britannica, “Bioplastic,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (accessed Apr. 02, 2024).
  5. Fava, M., “Ocean Plastic Pollution an Overview: Data and Statistics,” UNESCO Ocean Literacy Portal, (accessed Apr. 03, 2024).

This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the May 2024 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at