Photo by Giovanni Bortolani
Artillery Row

Plastic? Fantastic!

The surprising virtues of the most abhorred material

It is hard to imagine modern civilization without plastic, which is so derided. The most widespread luxury belief of all is that plastic is bad and that you can be morally better by not using plastic bags and forks. Plastic is the sort of foundational material that has made life immeasurably better, safer and more tolerable in the last hundred years or so. We should celebrate it more. 

Let us begin with plasticity. We see this at work in all sorts of pre-industrial things: wax, ceramics and metals can be subject to plasticity. Bitumen is plastic and has long been used to caulk ships and containers. Plasticity in this sense simply means something is malleable under heat and pressure. We have long depended on it. It is necessary for progress that we can reshape our world. 

Plastics helped avoid the killing of animals for ornament

Plastic as used to refer to the material we know today is an early 20th century word that describes a series of inventions from the 19th century and early 20th century. These materials, at heart, all share the ability to be moulded under heat and pressure — hence the name, despite the fact they are inflexible once cooled. These are the plastics we have all learned to loathe. But consider: according to the British Plastics Federation, the use of plastics in an Airbus A380 lowers its operating costs by 15 per cent by making it lighter, thus saving fuel. Over seven hundred miles of cracked Victorian water pipes in London are being replaced with plastic. The vast majority of plastic is used in these sorts of ways, as packaging and piping. Plastic makes us cleaner and more efficient, lowers our energy costs, and provides us with fresh food and water.

The first modern plastic was made in Birmingham in 1865, using nitrocellulose which was an ingredient in explosives. Alexander Parkes combined nitrocellulose with camphor (extracted from the camphor laurel) to make a material that could substitute for horn and ivory. Britain was slow to pick up on this innovation. The next stage of progress came in the U.S.A. with the creation of celluloid in 1869. In Germany in 1890 another similar material was put to use making buttons, broaches, knitting pins and similar objects that could be made from artificial horn. In their first applications, plastics helped avoid the killing of animals for ornament. Plastic could be used to make combs, saving all those poor tortoises being killed for their shells, and billiard balls and piano keys, saving the elephants. Unlike other substitutes, such as wood or metal, a plastic comb is impervious to the effects of water. Celluloid gave us one other miracle, of course — the movies. No plastic, no Chaplin, Hayworth, Hitchcock or Hepburn. 

Celluloid, as any fans of the film Cinema Paradiso will remember, is sadly flammable. That problem was solved in 1907 when Dr. L.H. Baekland heated carbolic acid and formaldehyde together to the presence of acids and created a synthetic resin. This wasn’t quite new, but when he added alkalies to the process the resin could become hard and inflexible. Applying heat and pressure before the resin hardened meant you could create all manner of objects more easily than with celluloid. This was bakelite. Now we got plastic ashtrays, decorative panels, radios, car fixtures, telephone cases, jewellery, dominoes, letter openers and electric insulation. The distinctive tone and texture of bakelite became part of the identity of the era. 

Plastic keeps food fresh in a way other packaging does not

In 1929, polymerisation arrived. Polymerisation is the combination of molecules to create bigger chains of molecules which, when big enough, form a substance that is plastic. These materials can be heated and cooled without losing their properties. Bakelite cannot be remoulded; polymerised plastics can. This was how we got Perspex, a highly transparent glass-like substance, which was vital to the manufacture of fighter planes in the Second World War. Perspex was much less likely to shatter than glass. Polymerisation also gave us PVC, much derided now, but a great advancement. PVC is used to make sewage and water pipes, well-insulated windows, and guttering and drainpipes, as well as casing wire rope and aircraft cables, making them easier to handle and protecting them from corrosion. 

The most well known synthetic plastic is Nylon, invented in the U.S.A. in the 1930s. We know it for its use in stockings, but it was more significant in the Second World War as the basis of parachutes and tents. It also produces brush bristles. Plastics played a huge role in the Second World War, in everything: lightweight pistol grips, pilot goggles, rifle-oil bottles, waterproof match boxes, components of grenades, even teflon containers for the chemicals used in the Manhattan Project. Production boomed after the war, starting the availability of plastic we know today. 

Plastic today is often a convenience, such as in luggage, which is now much more portable. But plastic is also an essential part of modern life. You may have mouldings in your dental work and will be glad of its impermeability. Children’s crockery is plastic for good and obvious reasons. Laboratories are full of plastic equipment. Products like toothpaste now come in plastic tubes, a great improvement on the old tin and lead. One of the reasons we are able to safely feed such a large global population is because plastic keeps food fresh in a way other packaging does not. 

Of course, plastic is a terrible scourge on the environment, particularly oceans and rivers, but innovative efforts are underway to resolve this problem. The Ocean Clean Up company has removed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic from rivers and oceans. They are currently developing a new system that will continue this work. One of the things they use to help design trash interceptors is lego, one of the most famous and enduring forms of plastic. Rather than hating plastic and wanting to ban it, we should learn to love this remarkable material and support the efforts of The Ocean Clean Up to make-sure we can benefit from plastic in the future.

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