Plastic water bottles on an assembly line

No matter where you live or what you do on a daily basis, there’s a good chance you’re consistently surrounded by plastic products. We all use materials made via plastic manufacturing at work, in our homes, and just about anywhere else we go. In fact, the industry is valued at around $129.1 billion in the United States alone.

But things were not always this way. Taking the long view on history, the ubiquity of plastic products is actually a relatively new phenomenon. And, of course, it’s evolved quite a bit over the past 150 years or so. Here’s a brief history of plastics manufacturing:

Origins of Plastic Manufacturing

Before the middle of the 19th century, humans worked with natural plastics such as amber, horn, tortoiseshell, rubber, and shellac, but it was far from the most popular material used to make tools and other goods. What changed everything was the discovery of synthetic polymers and the subsequent improvements and innovations that came afterward.

John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in 1869 by treating cellulose with camphor. This enabled him to craft the material into a variety of shapes, which could imitate natural plastics. Synthetic polymers are made up of long chains of atoms in repeating units. The length of the chains and the patterns make them the polymer strong, flexible, and lightweight material we know today.

The Impact of the Discovery

This discovery was not only important from an economic perspective, but an environmental and human one. Manufacturing before then had been limited by materials supplied by nature. The ability to create new materials meant that animals such as elephants and tortoises would be safe from extinction, but also that other natural resources wouldn’t be over-mined either. Additionally, the lack of economic constraints previously imposed by scarcity disappeared. Suddenly, material wealth was much more attainable.

Further Innovations

Innovations continued through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th as plastic became an increasingly popular material. Some examples include PVC first being synthesized by Eugen Baumann in 1872, Eastman Kodak receiving a patent for celluloid film in 1889, and eventually Leo Baekeland using phenol and formaldehyde to create fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in 1907.

The invention of Bakelite was especially important as it contained no molecules found in nature. This was essential for meeting the increasing demands of mechanical mass production at the time. Plus, the material was durable, heat-resistant, and could be molded into just about anything. The success of this product led to many chemical companies putting together research and development teams to further enhance innovation.

World War II

The next great leap forward for the world of plastics manufacturing came when World War II broke out. As the United States needed to preserve natural resources, synthetic alternatives became all the more vital to miliary success, allowing plastics to enter the conversation. For example, Nylon was used for ropes, body armor, parachutes, and more. Plexiglass was used for aircraft windows. Plastic production increased drastically all throughout the war and even continued after that. During the post-war economic boom, Americans used their increased spending power to buy many plastic products. Plastic was soon ubiquitous in the automobile, packaging, and furniture industries, among others.

Concerns and the Future of Plastic Manufacturing

Plastic became as popular as it did in less than a century because it was a durable, inexpensive, sanitary material that could be used to make just about anything. But it wasn’t without its faults. As early as the 1960s, plastic debris was observed in the ocean. Another major concern was plastic waste due to the fact that plastic lasts forever in the environment, despite the products often being quite disposable. One solution put forth by the industry was recycling, but that has still proven to be far from a perfect fix even decades later.

Still, plastic is not a material that can be easily abandoned. It’s been crucial to the development of our products that save lives in the medical field and those that have moved technology forward, such as computers and cell phones. They’ve made many of the possessions we take for granted affordable for regular people while also making many products safer and stronger. With that in mind, many in the science and plastics manufacturing communities are working to make plastic more sustainable. Beyond just making materials more recyclable or reusable, scientists are working on making them biodegradable.

Meanwhile, the present of plastic manufacturing involves many important processes, aided by the use of technology, that allow companies to enhance their products. Here at Piper Plastics, we do just that in the dip molding, dip coating, and fluidized bed coating processes. If you’re like to learn more about what we do, feel free to contact us today!

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