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Atlantic Poly Provides A Brief History On Polyethylene

09 Aug 2010

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The history of manufactured plastics goes back more than 100 years; however, when compared to other materials, plastics are relatively modern. Their usage over the past century has enabled society to make huge technological advances. Although plastics are thought of as a modern invention, there have always been "natural polymers" such as amber, tortoise shells and animal horns. These materials behaved very much like today's manufactured plastics and were often used similar to the way manufactured plastics are currently applied. For example, before the sixteenth century, animal horns, which become transparent and pale yellow when heated, were sometimes used to replace glass.

Alexander Parkes unveiled the first man-made plastic at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. This material -- which was dubbed Parkesine, now called celluloid -- was an organic material derived from cellulose that once heated could be molded but retained its shape when cooled. Parkes claimed that this new material could do anything that rubber was capable of, yet at a lower price. He had discovered a material that could be transparent as well as carved into thousands of different shapes. Then in 1907, chemist Leo Hendrik Baekland, while striving to produce a synthetic varnish, stumbled upon the formula for a new synthetic polymer originating from coal tar. Baekland had coined "plastics" as the term to describe this completely new category of materials.

The first patent for polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a substance now used widely in vinyl siding and water pipes, was registered in 1914. Cellophane was also discovered during this period.

Plastics did not really take off until after the First World War, with the use of petroleum, a substance easier to process than coal into raw materials. Plastics served as substitutes for wood, glass and metal during the hardship times of World War's I & II.   After World War II, newer plastics, such as polyurethane, polyester, silicones, and polypropylene joined PVC in widespread applications. Many more would follow and by the 1960s, plastics were within everyone's reach due to their inexpensive cost. Plastics had thus come to be considered 'common' - a symbol of the consumer society.