The Promise of Plastics

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 9:42 PM

The history of plastics is believed to have begun around 1860. A U.S. Pool and billiard company called Phelan and Collander offered a $10,000 prize to the person who could develop a substitute for ivory. The winner was John Wesley Hyatt, who called his new material Cellulose. It was marketed as Celluloid commercially and was used for a large range of products including dental plates and mens shirt collars.
After Hyatt a large range of polymers were developed, but the first completely synthesized product was created around the 1900's and was called Bakelite. The brittle, lightweight product named for its inventor Leo Hendrick Baekeland, was the first to be referred to as plastic.
Bakelite™ Jewelry 

Since then plastics have evolved to become more durable and long lasting. Plastic originally created affordable products. Affordable and beautiful jewelry and elegant tube radios were now attainable by all working classes. Plastic was a material used to efficiently produce a great quantity of items at a lower cost to the manufacturer than natural alternatives. The production of plastic materials boomed during the industrial revolution.
At the time, little thought was given to the reality of a non biodegradable substance, as it was still fairly new. The positive aspects of the material seemed to outweigh the negative. As the world population has increased along the demand for inexpensive, single use products, we have created a startling amount of waste. We have disrespected the use of a product that was originally intended to increase the quality of life. The problem lies not with plastic itself but with our casual and uninformed use of it. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean there exists a patch of floating trash the size of the state of Texas.

Although this is incredibly disturbing, there is still hope for our future. The most important thing is to teach people about the plastic they consume daily so that they may make informed decisions about its purchase and disposal. Currently, many large corporations are making the environmentally responsible decision to switch to biodegradable plastics. These plastics have starch powder mixed in as a plastic filler which allows the material to break down easier when exposed to sunlight, water, bacteria, and enzymes. The plastic doesn't completely break down, but this is a great start. Even more promising, some companies have even genetically engineered bacteria that synthesize an entirely biodegradable plastic. At this time, the new fully biodegradable plastic is pretty expensive, but hopefully this will change as time goes on. With the spreading of knowledge, practice of mindful habits, and the innovations of chemistry, there is still hope for us to turn this mess around.  

—Heather Winkelman

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