Mr. McQuire: I just want to say one word to you, just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. McQuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McQuire: Plastics.
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McQuire: There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Mr: McQuire: Yes, I will.
- Scene from the 1969 film The Graduate, screenplay written by Buck Henry
That was then (February 5, 1909)
Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium on November 14, 1863. He earned his PhD degree in chemistry from the University of Ghent and taught physics and chemistry in Bruges and in Ghent before traveling with his wife to New York City in 1889, where he was offered a position in the E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company. He and wis wife moved to New York and worked with the Anthony company for two years before going into business for himself as a consulting chemist. Financial difficulties prompted him to return to the photographic company, where he developed a photographic paper known as Velox, which became the first commercially successful photographic paper. In 1899 Baekeland and a business partner sold his invention to the Eastman Kodak company for $750,000, of which Baekeland himself received around $215,000 (which in 2017 would be worth more than $6,000,000).
Although wealthy by most people’s standards at the age of 36, Leo Baekeland wished to make more money as quickly as possible. It occurred to him that the area of chemistry that provided the most promise of yielding a large return was the field of synthetic resins. Natural resins secreted from plants had a number of properties that made them valuable for a variety of commercial and industrial applications, but their availability depended on the plants from which they were taken. Supply being limited, prices could be high. Chemists around the world were working on developing polymers that had the desirable characteristics of organic resins but could be manufactured in sufficient quantities to bring costs down. Baekeland carefully studied the work of other chemists and learned from their successes and their failures. He concentrated his efforts on working with various combinations of phenol and formaldehyde. In 1907 he succeeded in creating a product that was among the first synthetic plastics. It was the first plastic that retained its shaped when heated. On February 5, 1909 Baekeland announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. Two years earlier he had applied for a patent for the product that he called Baekelite, a name that he reckoned might be easier to remember than its chemical name, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. The name came eventually to be better known as Bakelite.
Bakelite was a hard substance that did not conduct electricity and was resistant to heat, properties that made it ideal for making electrical insulators. It was also used to make the casings of radios and telephones, electrical clocks, stems for tobacco pipes, kitchen utensils, the bodies of vacuum cleaners, and even firearms. By the time Baekeland died at the age of 80 on February 3, 1944, Bakelite was used in the manufacture of more than 15,000 products.
This is now (21st Century)
During the century that has elapsed since the first commercial production of Bakelite, various kinds of plastics have been used to make textiles, carbonated drink bottles, peanut butter jars, plastic film, microwavable packaging, supermarket bags, plastic bottles and bottle caps, detergent bottles, milk jugs, plumbing pipes and guttering, shower curtains, window frames, flooring, outdoor furniture, siding, drinking straws, yogurt containers, appliances, car fenders, disposable tableware, toothbrush bristles, tubing, fishing line, engine parts, computer monitors, keyboards and mice, printers, drainage pipe, compact discs, eyeglasses, traffic lights, toys and mobile phone bodies.• The famous Glock semiautomatic pistol, which accounts for 65% of the pistols sold in the United States, is made of a hard plastic. (Put that through your metal detector!) So many everyday products are made of plastic that it is challenging in most homes and public spaces to find more than a few objects that are not made of plastic. Plastics are without any doubt convenient, lightweight, durable and relatively inexpensive. They have made life comfortable—for now.
- The list of products mentioned above was taken, with only a few minor changes from an Wikipedia article on plastics, which tells the particular kind of plastic from which the products in question are made.
It is one of the desirable qualities of plastic, its durability, that also makes it one of the greatest environmental pollutants. Because most plastics do not degrade quickly in natural settings, disposed plastic products have accumulated in large quantities in the world’s oceans such as the Great Pacific garbage patch. Most plastics are made from petroleum, so the manufacture of plastic goods participates in the environmental degradation and pollution associated with the extraction and transportation of petroleum. The manufacture of plastics generally requires large amounts of energy, and the generation of energy is a further factor in the production of various types of pollution. Being petroleum-based products, most plastics give off greenhouse gases when burned. Plastics can be recycled, but there are so many types of plastic that recycled plastic usually needs to be sorted before it can be melted down and turned into material for making new products, and sorting recycled plastic is a very labor-intensive undertaking. Many electronic products, such as television sets and mobile telephones are made up of so many types and grades of plastic components, that they must be manually disassembled before the plastic can be recycled. Unfortunately, much of the work of disassembling electronic products is done in developing countries by very low-paid workers laboring in unhealthy conditions. While recycling plastics is certainly preferable to putting it in landfills or letting it drift out to sea to join a non-organic gyre in the ocean, recycling comes in far behind reusing plastic products and reducing its use. It is discouraging to see how much water is sold in plastic bottles that are used once and then thrown away, either as garbage or as recycling.
A book that made a long-standing impact on my circle of friends in the mid-1980s was James Bellini’s High Tech Holocaust (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, ©1986), which discusses the environmental impact of plastics and the toxicity of many of the ingredients used to stabilize plastic products. Bellini made the claim that within five to ten years of 1985, the amount of plastic products in the environment would be so great as to cause irreversible damage to many ecosystems. Of course, if one looks at the history of the earth from a geological perspective, the claim of irreversible environmental change is an exaggeration. It might have been more accurate to say that the environmental impact of the volume of plastics manufactured, used and discarded in the century since Bakelite was marketed will last for at least one thousand years and during that time will almost surely have consequences that people living now are not able fully to know.
A more recent effort to make people aware of the consequences of using plastic products, and especially disposable water bottles, is a film called The Story of Bottled Water. This film outlines environmental hazards that Bellini’s book, thorough as it was, did not anticipate. People living in the middle and end of the current century will no doubt be discovering deleterious effects of plasticdom that this 2010 film did not anticipate. Our love of convenience will be having effects on human beings living in times when no one will remember the names of more than a handful of the people now alive, or the names of the countries in which we now live, and those effects will be felt—are now being felt—by flora and fauna that are barely aware of us humans and totally oblivious of the products, nations, religions and ideologies that we devote our lives to cherishing. We will not be known or remembered, except for the plastic waste we have left behind.