How plastic became a victim of its own success

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“If I am deceived, this invention will be important in the future.” Leo Baekeland wrote these words in his journal, July 11, 1907. He was in a good mood. Aged 43, he had done well.

Born in Belgium, his father was a cobbler. He had no education, and no understanding of why the young Leo wanted. He apprenticed as a child in the trade, at the age of 13 years. But her mother had other ideas.

With her encouragement, Leo went to night school, and earned a scholarship to the University of Ghent. At the age of 20, he had a doctorate in chemistry.

He married his guardian’s daughter and moved to New York, where he made so much money photographic print paper that he has never needed to work on.

The Baekelands bought a house in Yonkers, overlooking the Hudson River, where Leo has built a house in the laboratory to indulge his love of tinkering with chemicals. In July 1907, he experimented with the formaldehyde and the phenol.


These experiments would lead to his second fortune.

It has become so famous that Time magazine put his face on the cover, without the need of mention his name, the words, “It will not burn. It will not melt.”

What Leo Baekeland invented the month of July was the first fully synthetic plastic.

He called it Bakelite.

50 Things That have Made the Modern Economy, it highlights the inventions, innovations and ideas that have helped to create the economic world in which we live.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information on the program, the sources and listen to them online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

And he was right about its importance, in the future. Plastic would soon be everywhere.

When Susan Freinkel has written her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, she has spent a day to write down everything she touched that was plastic: the light switch, the toilet seat, toothbrush, tube of toothpaste.

She also noted anything that is not toilet paper, the floors are wood, porcelain, press. Unlimited potential

At the end of the day, she had recorded 102 items that were not made of plastic, and 196 that have been. We do so many plastic bags, it takes about 8% of the oil production in half the first, half of the energy.

The Bakelite Company does not have to contain in its advertising blurb: the man, he said, had transcended the old taxonomy, animal, mineral and vegetable. Now, we had a “fourth kingdom, whose limits are limitless”.

That sounds hyperbolic, but it was true.

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Previously, scientists have thought of improving or mimicking the natural substances.

Earlier plastics such as celluloid, were herbal, and Baekeland himself had been to find an alternative to shellac, a resin secreted by beetles that has been used for electrical insulation.

However, it was quickly realized that the Bakelite could become a lot more versatile than that. Artificial explosion

The Bakelite Company called “The material of a Thousand Uses”, and, again, this was not far from the truth.

He went in telephones, radios, rifles, coffee pots, billiard balls, and jewelry. It has been used in the first atomic bomb.


The bakelite’s success changed mindsets: what other artificial materials might be possible, with properties, you could not necessarily find in nature?

In the 1920s and 1930s, plastics cast of laboratories around the world.

There were polystyrene, often used for packaging, nylon, popularized by the bottom, and polyethylene, the stuff of plastic bags.

As the second World War stretched the natural resources, the production of plastics accelerated to fill the gap. And when the end of the war, of exciting new products such as Tupperware has hit the consumer market.


But they were not exciting for a long time: the image of plastic gradually changed. Displacement of the connotations

In 1967, the movie The Graduate famous started with the central character, Benjamin Braddock, the receipt of unsolicited career advice from a self-satisfied older neighbour.

“Just a word,” the next, promises, of the branch of Benjamin to a quiet corner, as if about to reveal the secret of life itself. “Plastics!”

The line was often quoted, because it crystallized the evolution of the connotations of the word. For the neighbor’s older generation, “plastic” meant all the same, the ability and modernity. For the tastes of the young Benjamin, he stood for everything that is fake, superficial, ersatz.

Again: it was very good advice. A half-century, despite its image problem, plastics production has increased by about twenty times. It is going to double in the next 20 years.

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This is also despite the growing evidence of environmental problems. Some of the chemicals in plastics are thought to affect how animals grow and reproduce.

When plastics end up in landfills, these chemicals can eventually seep into the groundwater; when they find their way into the oceans, some creatures eat them. More from Tim Harford:

How fertilizers has contributed to feeding the world

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But there is another side to the accounting – plastic material has benefits that are not only economic, but also the environment.

Vehicles manufactured with plastic parts are lighter, and therefore use less fuel. Plastic packaging keeps food fresh longer and reduce waste. If the bottles were not made of plastic, they’d be made of glass. Whether you prefer to is lost in your playing area for children?The rate of recycling of garbage

Finally, we’re going to have to learn how to better recycling of plastic, if only because the oil won’t last forever.

Some plastics can not be recycled, such as Bakelite. Many others could be, but are not. In fact, only about one-seventh of the plastic packaging is recycled – much less than for the paper or the steel. This rate is even lower for other plastic products.What should be the 51st Thing?

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Tim Harford discussed 50 things which, according to him, have made the modern economy. Help in choosing the 51st thing by voting for one of these listener suggestions:
The credit card
Global Positioning system (GPS)
The pencil
The worksheet

You can vote on the 50 Things That have Made the Modern Economy website of the program. The voting ends at 12:00 GMT on Friday 6 October 2017, and the winner of the 51st Thing to be announced in a special podcast on October 28, 2017.

The improvement will require the efforts of all the world. You may have seen small triangles of plastic, with numbers from one to seven.

They are called resin Identification Codes, and they are an initiative of the industry trade association. They help with the recycling, but the system is far from perfect.

If the industry could do more, it was the same of many governments: recycling rates vary enormously across the world.

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A success story is in Taipei, Taiwan. It has changed the culture of waste by making it easy for citizens to recycle, and to impose a fine if they do not.

How about technological solutions? Is it revolutionary?

The sci-fi Fans enjoy a recent invention, the ProtoCycler. Feed your plastic waste, and it gives you filament for your 3D printer.

It is as close as we can get today to a Star Trek replicator.


In his time, the Bakelite must have felt as revolutionary as that Star Trek replicator still feels to us.

Here was a simple, cheap product synthesis, which has been quite difficult to replace the crockery in ceramic or metal, letter opener, yet beautiful enough to be used as jewelry, and could even replace precious ivory.

It was a miracle, even if – like all plastics today – we now take it for granted.

But the manufacturers of today have not given up on the idea that you can do something valuable and practical from something cheap and useless.

The most recent techniques to “upcycle” plastic garbage, mixing it with agricultural waste, and nanoparticles to create new materials, new properties.

Leo Baekeland would have approved of.

Tim Harford, writing in the Financial Times is covered Economist of the column. 50 Things That have Made the Modern Economy, which is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information on the program, the sources and listen to them online or subscribe to the programme podcast.