How old is plastic? You may be surprised.

How old is plastic? You may be surprised.
Container and Packaging
by Container and Packaging
September 8, 2020, Updated July 16, 2021

Plastic as we know it today may seem like a ‘space-age’ polymer. It has been around for less than a century andcan be considered a modern day miracle. After all, plastics solve a lot of problems. Plastics help cars weigh less which makes them more fuel efficient. Yogurt doesn’t spoil as quickly. Carrying any liquid product becomes easier and less prone to leaks or taint. Heck, even pacemakers and countless other medical products rely on plastic. These are just a few of the everyday advantages plastic offers that we take for granted.

What may surprise you is how old plastic really is. True, it wasn’t always the literal lifesaver we know today, but the principals of plastic polymers predate what most people would guess. Before plastics people used natural materials that were similar to plastic. Chicle (chewing gum), and Shellac (lac bug secretions… eww) were used to chew, glaze food, seal, prime, block odors, stain, varnish and insulate. This eventually gave way to manufactured or modified materials like rubber, nitrocellulose (aka gun cotton), Collagen (animal protein), and Galalith (made from milk and formaldehyde). The most common early plastics were bio-derived from egg and blood. Around 1600 B.C., the Olmec civilization was one of the first to start using rubber to make balls, bands, and even action figures. During the Middle Ages in Europe milk and lye polymers were being used to create window panes for lanterns and buildings.

The next big leap for plastics came over 3,000 year later, in the 1800’s during the industrial revolution. Processes like vulcanization and thermosetting forever altered the manufacturing landscape. In 1856 Alexander Parkes patented a new product called Parkesine, widely considered the first man-made plastic. Six years later, in 1862, it was revealed to the public during the Great International Exhibition in London. It was made from cellulose (dead plants) and treated with nitric acid. Parkesine was hailed for its ability to be melted and remolded, readily accepting of pigments, and dissolvability in alcohol. Its intended purpose was to replace the use of ivory for pianos, buttons, and billiard balls.

After the First World War better chemical engineering technology led to a rapid expansion of new forms of plastics. In fact this age is where we saw development of the big five plastic types we know today. Timeline montage!
-1927 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is produced commercially (although it was discovered back in 1872)
-1930 PS (polystyrene) is produced by BASF
-1933 HDPE (Polyethylene) is produced by Imperial Chemical Industries
-1941 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) Is licensed by DuPont after being discovered by employees of the Calico Printers’ association
-1957 PP (Polypropylene) begins its first commercial manufacture

Today it’s hard to imagine a world without plastic. Its use has become so common that it’s easy to take it for granted. So what is the next polymer? What will replace plastic a hundred years from now? If you think know you should tell us. If you want a look back on the history of packaging, check out our infographic on the various types of packaging we’ve seen over the centuries.