History of plastics

The development of plastics started with natural materials that exhibited plastic properties. Modern synthetic plastics were invented around 100 years ago.

Plastics: a story of more than 100 years of innovation

Since the dawn of history, humankind has endeavoured to develop materials offering benefits not found in natural materials. The development of plastics started with the use of natural materials that had intrinsic plastic properties, such as shellac and chewing gum. The next step in the evolution of plastics involved the chemical modification of natural materials such as rubber, nitrocellulose, collagen and galalite. Finally, the wide range of completely synthetic materials that we would recognise as modern plastics started to be developed around 100 years ago:

  • One of the earliest examples was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855, who named his invention Parkesine. We know it today as celluloid.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was first polymerised between 1838-1872.
  • A key breakthrough came in 1907, when Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, the first real synthetic, mass-produced plastic.
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Bakelite: The greatest discovery of the late 19th century

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Since Baekeland’s creation, many new plastics have been realised and developed, offering a huge range of desirable properties, and you will find them in every home, office, factory and vehicle. We can’t predict what lies in store over the next hundred years, but we are confident in predicting that, for plastics, the sky’s the limit!

Have a look at some of the main discoveries of the past in the British Plastics Federation (BPF) video.

Source: BPF

A full plastics timeline can be found on www.bpf.co.uk