Origins of ordinary things: Plastic

Plastic is the most commonly used material for the manufacture of products. The Science History Institute of the United States says that plastic is mostly made from petroleum and fossil fuels whose atoms are long-chained and arranged in repeating units. That’s why plastic is strong, light and flexible.

According to Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland is credited with the invention of plastic. That’s because in 1907, Baekeland manufactured the first truly synthetic plastic called ‘Bakelite’ which didn’t contain any natural molecules. 

However, Baekeland was not the first person to make an attempt at making plastic. Alexander Parkes, an English metallurgist and inventor, patented ‘Parkesine’, the first man-made plastic in 1856. This is according to ThoughtCo, a web-based knowledge resource. Wilhelm Krische, a German printing press owner, also made horn-like plastic in an attempt to make an alternative to blackboards.

Another significant figure in plastics history is American inventor John Wesley Hyatt who made the first industrial plastic called celluloid in the 1860s. Celluloid was used as film for still photography and motion pictures. It was also used to make false teeth and piano keys. This is according to Polymer Solutions Incorporated, a testing lab for polymers, plastics, and composites.

There are now several types of plastic and scientists use them to manufacture a wide range of products. According to online knowledge dissemination platform How Stuff Works, one such type of plastic is nylon which was made by American chemist Wallace Carruthers in the 1930s and is still used in the manufacture of clothes, bags and tents, among other things.

The existence of plastic has provided an opportunity for advancement in many fields such as home care, medicine, arts, fashion, and engineering. Phones, chairs, computers, medical equipment, and vehicle parts all make use of plastic. Thus, it is safe to say that plastic has made a significant contribution to development by making possible the existence of many affordable, durable and highly useful products.

At the same time, it has also been observed that disposal of plastic has a negative impact on the environment leading to the death of wild and aquatic life, and contributing of climate change. According to Wikipedia, plastic is dangerous to the environment because of its slow decomposition rate, some types taking up to 1000 years after being discarded.

For this reason, different countries have come up with laws regulating its use while many companies have explored recycling instead of discarding plastic. In Rwanda, the use of polythene, a type of plastic used to make thin sheets and bags, was banned.