The history of plastic begins in the 19th century, when, between 1861 and 1862, the Englishman Alexander Parkes, developing the studies on cellulose nitrate, isolates and patents the first semi-synthetic plastic material, which christens Parkesine (better known later like Xylonite). It is a first type of celluloid, used for the production of handles and boxes, but also of flexible products such as cuffs and shirt collars.
The first true affirmation of the new material, however, was only a few years later, when in 1870 the American brothers Hyatt patented the celluloid formula, with the aim of replacing the expensive and rare ivory in the production of billiard balls, except meeting an immediate success with dentists as a material to be used for dental impressions. From a chemical point of view, the celluloid was still cellulose nitrate and was unsuitable for being processed with high temperature molding techniques as it is highly flammable. The problem was overcome with the advent of the new century, when cellulose acetate, or celluloid, was developed, which was sufficiently flame retardant to reinforce and waterproof the wings and fuselage of the first airplanes or to produce cinematographic films.
In 1912 a German chemist, Fritz Klatte, discovers the process for the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which will have huge industrial developments only many years later.
A year later, in 1913, it was the turn of the first flexible, transparent and waterproof material that immediately found application in the field of packaging: the Swiss Jacques Edwin Brandenberger invented Cellophane, a cellulose-based material produced in very thin and flexible sheets.
The 1930s and the Second World War marked the passage of „plastic“ to „adulthood“, especially as regards the creation of a real modern industry: oil became the „raw material“ from which to start production and, at the same time, the processing techniques, starting with those of molding, improve and adapt to massive productions.
In 1935 Wallace Carothers first synthesized nylon (polyamide), a material that would spread with the war following the American troops, finding a number of applications, thanks to its characteristics that make it absolutely functional for the textile industry: from women’s socks to parachutes, the rise of „synthetic fibers“ begins.
Starting from the work of Carothers, Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson in 1941 patented polyethylene terephthalate (PET), together with their employer, the Calico Printers‘ Association of Manchester. After the war, this polyester had great success in the production of artificial textile fibers (Terylene), a sector in which it is still widely used (for example, the fabric known as fleece is in PET). Its entry into the world of food packaging dates back to 1973, when Nathaniel Wyeth (Du Pont) patented the PET bottle as a container for carbonated drinks. Light, impact resistant and transparent, the bottle invented by Wyet is today the standard for the packaging of mineral waters and soft drinks.
After the Second World War, discoveries dictated by military needs invaded the civilized world. This occurred above all in the 1950s, when we witnessed the rise of the so-called melamine-formaldehyde resins, synthetic fibers, polyethylene and above all isotactic polypropylene, discovered by Giulio Natta in 1954 which has allowed applications hitherto unthinkable. This discovery allowed Natta himself to win the Nobel Prize in 1963, shared with the German Karl Ziegler.
The 1960s saw the definitive emergence of plastic as an irreplaceable tool of everyday life and as a new frontier also in the field of fashion, design and art. This material has burst into the daily lives and imagination of millions of people, allowing ever larger masses to access the consumption previously reserved for the privileged few. All this has revolutionized an infinity of daily gestures and habits consolidated for centuries, helping to create the modern lifestyle.
The following decades are those of great technological growth, of the progressive affirmation for increasingly sophisticated and unthinkable applications, thanks to the development of the so-called „technopolymers“. Polymethylpentene (or TPX) used above all for the production of articles for clinical laboratories, resistant to sterilization and with perfect transparency; polyimides, thermosetting resins that do not change if subjected for even very long periods to temperatures of 300 ° C and which are therefore used in the automotive industry for engine components or microwave ovens; acetal resins, polyphenylene oxide, ionomers, polysulfones, polyphenylene sulfide, polybutylene terephthalate, polycarbonate used, among other things, to produce astronaut space helmets, contact lenses, bulletproof shields. „Technopolymers“ have such characteristics of thermal and mechanical resistance (moreover still partially unexplored) that they often make them superior to special metals or ceramic, so much so that they are used in the production of turbine blades and other components of the jet engines, or in the production of pistons and piston rings for automobiles.
Uncollected or non-recycled plastic can be destined for energy recovery through the waste-to-energy process. In fact, after a specific selection and shredding treatment it is possible to obtain alternative fuels (RDF) used in industrial processes (for example in cement plants) and for the production of thermoelectric energy. Suffice it to say that with a plastic bottle you can keep a 60-watt light bulb on for an hour, even if we know the damage caused by the combustion processes of oil derivatives well, and many criticize this method.
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Replacing plastic with other materials without eliminating or reducing disposable consumption risks moving only the environmental impacts from one resource to another. The current consumption model, made of ready meals from appetizers to fruit, of takeaway food ordered online, of products that travel from one part of the planet to another, of foods that must have an expiration date as far as possible in the time, has the responsibility on the immoderate consumption of plastic. It is mainly plastic that, for better or for worse, made this model possible and now they have become „one thing“. Getting out of it requires rethinking our lifestyles and the economic models that allow us to be H24 consumers, and to always be wary of easy slogans.The most worrying thing, for those who have a clear idea of what should be done immediately at national and local policy level, and what industry should do while waiting for these policies to be translated into legislative measures, is that doing too little and especially not the most just and urgent actions.
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Plastic is too cheap, convenient material to be eliminated from life, and recycling does not satisfy and does not meet the hopes placed in it.