First a bit of history:
The first form of "plastic" was developed by Alexander Parkes, who introduced his invention at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862. Known as Parkesine, the material was made from cellulose, which was able to be moulded when heated and set into shape once cooled (American Chemistry Council).
The invention of Bakelite by Leo Baekeland in 1907 is considered to be the pivotal point in the history of modern plastics, as it was the first to be created using fossil fuels. The material was made using phenol, a derivative of coal tar, and paved the way for the modern or synthetic plastics we are now all too familiar with (BBC News Magazine 2014).
Since then, synthetic plastics have developed into a multi-billion dollar industry employing 1.5 million people in the US alone (Department of Commerce), and forms part of the country's top three largest manufacturing industries (The Plastic Industry Trade Association), which brings me to its first advantage: it is has huge economic benefits.
Most of the other advantages of plastic is reflected in its characteristics. For example, it is easy and inexpensive to produce, it is strong, versatile, lightweight, biologically inert (non-reactive) and can act as both thermal and electrical insulators (American Chemistry Council). These properties make it suitable for a variety of applications, such as those within the construction and transport industries, as well as for packaging and scientific applications (History of Plastic).
I remember listening to Anya Hindmarch on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs a few years ago talk about plastic (BBC Radio 4). Her father worked in the plastic business and made his fortune from it. Years later, Anya founded her hugely successful eponymous handbag company and designed the much-copied "I'm not a plastic bag" tote [Figure 1] aimed at bringing attention to our overuse of plastic bags.
|Figure 1. "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" by Anya Hindmarch (Vanity Fair, September 2009)|
What I struck me most during the interview is that Anya said is that plastic is not bad, it's our misuse of it that is. And I couldn't agree more.