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9 Durable Facts About Plastic

Plastic is everywhere. Look around and you’re bound to immediately notice something made from the stuff. It houses the milk in our grocery carts, makes up the components in our phones, and is woven into the fibers of our clothes. Here are nine facts you might not know about one of the most common materials we interact with every day.

The Very First Plastic Was a Flop

Plastic may seem like a manufacturing miracle limited to the 20th century, but its earliest version actually cropped up around the mid-1800s. English chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes created the first known plastic, eponymously named Parkesine, in 1855, and exhibited it in London in 1862. Parkes’ moldable material was formed from cellulose (aka plant fibers), and it wasn’t cheap. It was also brittle and prone to cracking — two reasons that kept Parkesine from gaining widespread popularity.

Some Early Plastics Were Flammable

By the late 1860s, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt had created celluloid, the first plastic product that would be used for everyday products. Hyatt initially marketed celluloid as a substitute for natural materials, suggesting it was an environmentally friendly swap for the ivory used in billiard balls and tortoiseshell harvested for jewelry and combs. However, celluloid did have a major drawback: It could catch on fire. Billiard balls made from the substance reportedly ran the risk of spontaneously bursting into flame, and cinema film made from celluloid was known to be extremely flammable.

A Plastic Invented in 1909 Is Still Used Today

Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland had already made his fortune from inventing specialty photo paper when he began experimenting with polymers, aka the molecules that make up plastics. Baekeland created a new version of plastic, called Bakelite, in 1907; historians consider it the first fully synthetic plastic made with no naturally occurring materials. Bakelite’s popularity skyrocketed, and the heat-resistant plastic was used for everything from irons, kitchen cookware handles, and telephones to smaller items like buttons and chess pieces. You can still find Bakelite used for electrical components today thanks to its superior insulating properties.

The Word “Plastic” Is Ancient

Modern consumers began using the term “plastic” as far back as 1909, to refer to Bakelite, though the word is actually centuries old. “Plastic” has roots in Latin — from plasticus, meaning something like “fit for molding” or “moldable” — and before that the Greek plastikos, which had a similar meaning.

World War II Fueled the Plastics Industry

Plastics slowly made their way into everyday products during the early part of the 20th century, though World War II had a profound impact on the industry and caused a surge in production. Lower-quality plastics replaced rationed and hard-to-find materials for consumer products, and higher-end versions were used in the war effort. Acrylic and plexiglass made their way inside bombers and fighter planes in place of glass, and nylon was created as a synthetic silk for parachutes, body armor, and ropes. Plastic technology improved during wartime and led to a boom after, with shoppers buying tons of plastic products that were marketed as durable and easy to clean.

There Are Seven Common Types of Plastic

Technically, there are hundreds of types of plastic, though most of the kinds we interact with on a daily basis fit into seven categories. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or #1) plastics are most common, found in water bottles, food containers, and polyester. Milk and laundry detergent jugs come from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or #2). Squeezable bottles, shopping bags, and garbage bags are made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or #4). Polypropylene (PP, or #5) is often used for straws and takeout containers. Plastic types #3 (PVC, or polyvinyl chloride) and #6 (PS, or polystyrene) are considered more difficult to recycle, and #7 is a catch-all category for combination plastics, like electronics, DVDs, and clear plastic forks.

Some Plastics Shouldn’t Be Microwaved

Is it safe to reheat your lunch if it’s stored in a plastic container? It depends on the type of plastic used. Heating some plastics can cause the materials to release additives, aka chemicals that help them stay durable and flexible (BPA and phthalates are the most common causes of concern). Polypropylene (aka plastic #5) is generally considered the safest to microwave because it’s heat-resistant, though plastics #3, #6, and #7 should never be heated. Researchers recommend checking to see if a container is labeled as microwave-safe, and steering clear of plastics that are damaged or unlabeled.

Most Plastic Is Never Recycled

Nearly all plastic can be melted down and turned into something new, though most never is. Less than 10% of all plastic products ever created have been recycled, with most ending up burned, in the ocean, or in landfills. That’s because collecting, sorting, and the actual recycling is expensive, far outweighing the cost of producing new plastic items. And plastic manufacturers say that the used containers can only be recycled once or twice before the materials degrade in quality, meaning creating new containers is more reliable — though obviously not great for the environment.

Plastic Shopping Bags Were Created to Save Trees

Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin created the plastic shopping bag in 1965. At the time, Thulin’s intention was to reduce the number of trees harvested to make paper bags; the plastic version he invented was sturdier and could be used over and over again. The bags, which were cheap to produce, became so popular that they nearly replaced paper bags by the end of the 1980s. Yet there were unintended consequences. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags, a movement that’s now grown to more than 100 countries in an effort to safeguard the seas and reduce landfill waste.

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