Humans have manufactured a total of 8.3 billion tons of plastics, a mass equivalent to almost 160,000 ships like the Titanic. Only 9% of this amount is recycled, while 12% is incinerated and 79% ends up in landfills. Plastic pollution has become one of the most-pressing environmental problems of our age, requiring intensified efforts not only to recycle, but also to reduce its use and replace it with other more sustainable materials. But this much-needed battle against its shortcomings should not make us forget that we owe a great deal to plastic in our modern world; if we enjoy numerous comforts today it is largely thanks to a history that began in 1907 with the invention of the first synthetic plastic, bakelite.
Today we associate bakelite with those old black telephones that were used in the past. Yet it became so ubiquitous that even its inventor fell short when describing it as “the material of a thousand uses.”
In the nineteenth century, the expansion of industrialisation called for new mouldable materials that would allow the manufacture of all kinds of articles. Chemists already knew about polymers, compounds formed by chains of repeated units that lent themselves to this type of manipulation, but those present in nature were not satisfactory. In 1870, the American John Wesley Hyatt chemically modified cellulose, a polymer found in plants, to produce celluloid, the first plastic. Hyatt created the material to qualify for a $10,000 prize offered by a New York billiard ball manufacturer to offer a substitute for the then scarce ivory, but celluloid ended up being used for a variety of objects, including rolls of film for which we know it today.
However, a particularly critical application required newer materials. In the 19th century, electrical cables were insulated using shellac, a natural resin secreted by the lac bug Kerria lacca, a small red insect found in Southeast Asia. The shellac was used for the manufacture of other objects such as 78 RPM gramophone discs. But it was easy to foresee that a material obtained from such a limited and inaccessible source would end up being scarce, and at the beginning of the 20th century the need arose to look for an alternative.
The right formula
At the time, various scientists had observed that the mixture of the organic substances phenol and formaldehyde produced a hard and apparently useless material that ruined laboratory containers. But some of them saw a promising future for these phenolic resins, the first synthetic plastics. The first scientist to come up with the right formula was New York-based Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, who had already made a fortune selling Kodak his invention of the first commercial photographic paper, Velox. In 1907 he applied for a patent for his new compound, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, which he called Bakelite.
Bakelite was the first commercial plastic that was completely synthetic, hot-mouldable and, once cooled, produced a hard material that was resistant to heat, electricity and solvents. Its application as an electrical insulator was immediate, but its uses soon began to proliferate. “Its impact was felt across a whole variety of industries, ranging from the production of umbrella handles and pipe stems to the automobile, electrical, and radio industries,” explains Joris Mercelis, science and technology historian at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book Beyond Bakelite: Leo Baekeland and the Business of Science and Invention (MIT Press, 2020).
Particularly relevant was the use of bakelite for specific components whose requirements matched perfectly with the properties of the new material, such as the distributor cap of automobiles, the base of radio tubes or the insulating plates on which parts were mounted, explains Jeffrey Meikle, historian of culture and design at the University of Texas (USA) and author of American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 1995). “Even now, phenolic resins are a staple in so-called stealth aircraft,” he tells OpenMind.
A driver of industrial development
Of course, the uses of bakelite were not limited to technological components: buttons, poker chips and pieces of games and toys, firearms, kitchen utensils, electric guitars and even jewellery were made from the material; the new plastic went from filling the gap of a specific demand to boosting industrial development in general. “It contributed to the expansion or transformation of various other industries, several of which were at the heart of the so-called second industrial revolution,” says Mercelis. Spurred on by the brilliant success of his product, Baekeland chose an ambitious emblem for his company: the mathematical symbol of infinity.
But Baekeland’s invention also paved the way for a new synthetic plastics industry with countless applications. “Bakelite was an important step in the development of the plastics industry and the entrance of plastics into people’s every day lives,” science writer Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), tells OpenMind. And these new plastics also followed Baekeland’s lead: “Bakelite pointed the way toward the use of fossil fuels as the raw ingredient for plastics,” says Freinkel. “And it accustomed us to having things made of a non-natural material.” Mercelis notes that this was another of Bakelite’s achievements, breaking down a cultural barrier: “The promoters of Bakelite were relatively successful in challenging the perception that synthetic plastics were inferior to natural materials such as amber or wood, thus facilitating the marketing of other new plastics as well.”
Its obvious limitations
However, bakelite had its obvious limitations: it was resistant, but fragile. The hardness and lack of flexibility that made it suitable for certain uses was a drawback for others. “You couldn’t make packaging from Bakelite, or fabric, or anything transparent, super lightweight things,” Freinkel sums up. “Moreover, some of the most successful varieties of Bakelite could only be produced in a very limited range of colours, and colour became an increasingly important marketing tool from the 1920s onward,” adds Mercelis.
That is why petrochemical companies began investigating new plastics derived from the by-products of fossil fuel processing. More versatile compounds such as polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) began to emerge, replacing bakelite in many of its applications, including some of those for which it was originally invented.
But even today, Baekeland’s legacy has not completely disappeared: at the very least, he should be thanked for the fact that we can grab the handle of a hot frying pan without burning our hand.