Our Plastic Future

Plastic is a relatively new invention, just over 100 years old. The first synthetic plastic was made in 1907 by a Belgian-born American in New York State. Leo Hendrik Baekeland pioneered a world that is currently one of the biggest industries in the world, as well as one of the most damaging. 


There are a lot of controversial aspects surrounding plastic, but that is not the focus of this article. Instead, we will explore how plastic is made and what raw materials are required. Everyone uses plastic, so it only makes sense that we know a little bit more about it. 


Rise of Plastic 


Before 1907 there were no synthetic plastics, but there were some plastic materials. These can be found in the form of resins made from plant matter, cellulose, oil, and other similar raw materials. These plastics were not exactly the revolution like its future offspring. For the most part, wood and metal largely dominated the world. Synthetic plastic changed this as it created a viable alternative which could stand up to wear-and-tear and was cheap to make. 


After his discovery, many other famous physicists and chemists worked and improved on its design, before it eventually began one of the most widely used materials in the world. This sudden rise was not regulated and we soon found ourselves in the predicament we have today. 


Raw Materials 


Plastic is made from organic material that can be made up of a variety of different elements, including carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, chlorine, and sulfur. The most frequently used raw materials used are oil, natural gas, and coal.  


There was a large supply of these materials during the mid-1900s and this allowed for the plastic industry to soar to new levels. It is only in recent years that the prices of oil, natural gas, and coal have begun increasing, putting pressure on the plastic industries as well. 


The collection of these materials are very expensive, but the quantity of raw materials collected is so large that allows for plastic to be an affordable item in most households. Most items that we own have plastic in some form or another. 




That scary word is the term used when raw materials are eventually converted into plastics. The reason is that different polymers are linked together to form chains. These chains are the plastic. This is why most plastics start with the word poly-. 


The process is quite complicated, but this is the simple version. Raw materials that have certain elements are collected and undergo a polymerization process. This material is then called ‘monomer’, which goes through a ‘cracking phase’. This allows the particles to be broken down with the assistance from a catalyst. Ethylene, propylene, butane, and other hydrocarbons are all examples the smaller molecules.  


The two main types of polymerization are the condensation reaction and the addition reaction. The result is chemical chains of polymers with their own individual properties and characteristics. Depending on the application, the polymerization process will vary.