design history June 15, 2019

Plastic: the material that went from hero to zero

Plastic is a concern for everyone. Designers, scientists, and researchers are constantly trying to find solutions and alternatives to this great pollutant.

But long before it was a massive threat against the Earth’s longevity, plastic was an exciting material that shaped Human development in more than one way.

Industrial designers were fascinated with its infinite potential, and how it could add new value.

Plastics are what gave birth to the film industry, what made cars possible, and what allowed for cable electrification (with the use of thermoplastic latex). It allowed for medical tools such as catheters, syringes, and inhalation masks, to name a few.

But what is it exactly and how did it change over time?

How are plastics made

Plastics are made of polymers, long, flexible chains of chemical compounds. That’s is what makes them so easily moldable, and shaped under heat or pressure.
Most industrial plastics are made out of fossil fuels, a cheaper alternative to more natural resources.

However, it’s possible to get it from nature. Fibrous plants, as well as natural sugars, and some microorganisms can be the answer to this huge environmental problem. These materials constitute bioplastics.

These bioplastics, unlike the ones made out of fossil fuels, will biodegrade faster and therefore, reduce pollution.

Some plastic development history

The first man-made plastic, Parkesine, was invented by Alexander Parkes, in the 1860s. However, he didn’t saw commercial use in it. Someone else had to come along and improve upon Parkes’ discovery.

That’s what John Wesley Hyatt did in 1867, he invented celluloid, the first industrialized plastic material. This is the same raw material that is used in film strips.

However, the first synthetic plastic only appeared in 1907. It was Leo Baekeland that revolutionized the plastic industry by introducing Bakelite. It was used for radio and phone casings, among other everyday things.

With II World War, the need for function over a style-driven design was back. And in order to create better-performing tools for war, the US government accelerated the development of several new materials, including various types of plastics.

Parachutes, hand grenades, airplane cockpits, guns, and helmets, were all designed and produced out of plastic.

But once the war was over, the factories that used to supply it, had to turn their focus towards something else in order not to face bankruptcy. The right answer? Consumerism.

In the 1950s, plastics became even more of a play material for designers. The America household and the new optimistic, post-war feeling induced consumerism and a new found love for house furniture and decor.

These were the perfect times for designers such as Charles and Ray Eames to experiment with the new materials. They were the first to produce a set of plastic-made products (a set of chairs), mass-produced to consumers.

The golden era

Forwarding to the next decade and we have the plastics age.
Manufacturing plastic was now easier and cheaper. It was also possible to develop more complex, three-dimension shapes to much designers delight.

Despite, being a symbol of its time, a representation of rebellious and subversive attitude towards tradition and the old days in the US, in other places, however, plastic was a symbol of sobriety and future sophistication.

Italy and Sweden invested a lot of resources in growing the “plastic design” industry. Plastic was the ultimate true design material. The representation of both form and function at an affordable price, available for the masses.

The plastic shift

Although the 60s were the golden era of plastic, it was also when people start seeing it as cheap, artificial and having some concerns about its usage.

Throughout the 70s and the 80s, there was a significant increase in the attempt to better dispose of plastics. By this time, people realized that band-aids, bottles, bags, and other practical plastics, although disposable, would last forever in nature.

Everyday products that used to be made out of wood or paper, were now mass-produced with plastic, endangering people’s health (thanks to the chemicals) and the environment.

It became such a concern that for the first time, the plastic industry talked about recycling and even encouraged governments to take action. However, most of the waste ended up in landfills anyway.

Today’s view on plastic products

This material has become the main conversation worldwide, especially in the past few years.

Plastic has become the number one target to eliminate. The problem isn’t in the material, but the usage we make of it, mainly in disposable, single-usage plastics.

Along with straws, bottles, and q-tips, the 1965’s invention – the disposable plastic bag – is one of the less recycled objects and the most found in the ocean.

Other than these, food packaging is the greatest problem. It’s cheap to produce, it conserves food for longer periods, and it’s lighter than traditional materials like glass.

It’s possible to replace it by more natural and eco-friendly alternatives, but it’s a process that will take time and money.

Banning single-use plastic and creating alternatives

Since last year, radical measures have been taking worldwide.
Several countries banned plastic bag usage, major coffee companies switched from disposable single-use to reusable cups, airlines introduced bamboo cutlery, and supermarkets are vouching for cloth bags.

Other international companies such as IKEA, are at the forefront of this problem, making an effort to eliminate single-use plastics from their products until 2020.

Plastic isn’t a bad material

It’s unclear if recent efforts will stop the massive pollution from continuing, but it’s worth trying.

The main idea to keep in mind is that our planet isn’t in danger due to materials such as plastic. What needs to change is how we perceive our consuming habits, and how we can reflect and improve them.

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