Plastics: A Primer
  • Plastics are so common now that we cannot imagine life without them.
  • The first use of plastics can be seen by the Olmecs in Mexico, playing a rubber ball in 1500 BCE.
  • Polymers, the main component of all plastics, are made of carbon by a process of replicating the extremely long molecule by reacting it to itself.

Natural polymers are also made of other components like rubber, silicone and even DNA.

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A brief history of plastics, natural and synthetic

bbc.com

  • Charles Goodyear patented ‘vulcanized’ rubber(mixing it with sulphur for durability) in 1840, creating it for the bicycle and later for cars.
  • Wood has cellulose which itself is a polymer that makes it durable.
  • The malleability of plastic also made it the raw material of the movie industry in 1870, marking the debut of celluloid(cellulose and camphor).
  • Apart from the film and vehicle industry, polymer plastics were also used in electrical switches in submarines in 1851.

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The first synthetic plastics, made using fossil fuels instead of plants or animals, came out in 1929. Polystyrene, polyester and polythene were some of the derivatives of synthetic plastics, driven mainly by the war industry.

Petrochemical companies then targeted the mass market with products like Tupperware and for bottling soft drinks and milk.

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  • An unexpected property of synthetic plastics is that they last forever, as no organism can digest these complicated, alien materials that litter our planet for thousands of years.
  • Plastic junk and micro-plastic particles are littering our oceans in giant floating mountains inside.
  • New advances in polymers that can decompose can help us in warding off this existential crisis due to non-compostable plastics harming our animal, sea and plant life

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