Thanks to a twitter tip-off from @plasticsworld I spent my evening yesterday watching Professor Mark Miodownik telling the story of plastics on the BBC, and it turns out this man-made “miracle material” tells quite a tale.
I had no idea, for instance, that plastic started life in a prison where Charles Goodyear (presumably for want of entertainment) invented vulcanised rubber. This was one of the first demonstrations of the power of chemistry to form new materials and led to all sorts of useful products like life buoys, wellies and, of course, tyres.
The next chapter in plastic’s history came about through a newspaper competition to find a replacement for the expensive (and evil) ivory in billiard balls. A completely new material was called for and eventually supplied by a chap called John Wesley Hyatt who, after some failed and highly flammable attempts, added camphor to collodion to form celluloid. This masterstroke created the world’s first practical plastic and made luxury items affordable to the masses. It wasn’t until its use as cinematic film stock 20 years later, however, that celluloid truly earned a place in history.
It was the infamous chemist and businessman Dr Bakeland who really saw the potential of plastics to change the world. In his mansion in the suburbs of New York, Bakeland mixed phenol with formaldehyde, and whilst the soggy pink stuff he produced wasn’t quite ready to make history, 5 years later (by controlling the speed of the reaction) he created something new and solid that certainly would. Bakelite (or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride – catchy!) caused a sensation when it hit the shops; it was new and fresh and signalled the birth of the modern world as we know it.
Bakelite never became as ubiquitous as the plastics we know today, however. These would develop from our newfound understanding of plastics at a molecular level; all we had to do was find molecules that would link together. Meanwhile the proliferation of the oil industry was perfectly timed to ensure that nylon, polyester and the like would rapidly become household names.
Metal still ruled where strength was required but that all changed when carbon fibre composite (black plastic) came along. This strong, stiff, light material would prove a winning combination from the early 80’s onwards, not least for Formula 1 cars and increasingly in the aerospace industry.
The program told the story of how plastics came to represent the triumph of the man-made over the natural world, but it also asked where the plastics of tomorrow would take us? Is it time we benefited from billions of years of evolutionary experience to find something superior to anything man has created? For example, scientists have learnt from the ability of a beetle to walk upside down on glass carrying 30 times it’s own body weight, creating a plastic that can do the same simply by imitating the miniscule pads on beetles’ feet.
Finally, the story showed how the relationship between artificial materials and nature is being redefined. Biomaterials are now being designed to go inside the body and interact with living cells; for example by providing ‘scaffolding’ for damaged cartilage to rebuild on before biodegrading to leave only human tissue.
It may well be that bioplastics will have an exciting role to play in the future of medicine, but I would argue that they have an important role to play in the here and now, and this was an area the program missed. There’s no arguing that the development and proliferation of plastics has defined the modern world but it’s also had a profoundly negative effect on it too. There was no mention of the fact that all the plastic we’ve produced from Bakelite’s miracle material to today is still present somewhere on the planet, much of it in huge floating islands in the ocean. There was no discussion of how we’re going to cope when the plentiful supply of oil that has powered the plastics industry dries up or simply becomes too expensive to be viable. Bioplastics produced from biological sources such as sugar cane, potato starch or the cellulose from trees, straw or cotton are now at the stage where they actually perform better than conventional plastics in many applications. Perhaps the next chapter will belong to them?
If you want to see the story of plastics for yourself the documentary is available on BBC iPlayer till 21 May.
If you’re wondering what’s got us so fascinated by plastics, check out our work for Biome Bioplastics, the UK’s leading supplier of biopolymers.