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A short history of moldable petrochemical polymers. You know, plastic.

If cotton is the fabric of our lives, plastic is the…everything else. It's the buckle in your seatbelt, the buzz in the alarm clock that starts your day, and the click of the remote control you grab at the end of a long one. It's everywhere.

From humble beginnings
The first man-made polymer (what we now call plastic) was debuted in 1862 at the International Exhibition of London by Alexander Parkes (it was called Parkesine, of course). And it turned a few heads. The lure of plastic was that it could be heated, formed, and cooled to retain its new shape.We take plasticfor granted today, but in the mid-1800s, this new material was nothing short of revolutionary.

Natural polymer products had been around for some time. Jewelry made from molded tortoise shells, for example, was prized by fashionable societyin the 18th and 19th centuries. The man-made version of polymers,enjoyed a period of similarly glamorous history. After the 1862 Parkesine debut, plastics took off. Early items made from celluloid, a polymer product of naturally occurring cellulose, include billiard balls and photographic film, which Thomas Edison used in experiments while developing his motion picture camera.

Okay. But, what's a polymer?
Polymers can be man-made or naturally occurring — all plastics are polymers, but not all polymers are plastics. A polymer is large molecule, made up of many smaller units, formed in a chain. These smaller units, monomers, are typically made up of carbon and hydrogen — with a little oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine or fluorine thrown in.

There are two important groups of polymers. A thermoplastic polymer can be formed, heated and reformed over and over again (think recyclables). The properties of this kind of plastic allow it to be heated up and reused as something entirely different. Alexander Parkes'Parkesine was revolutionary for displaying thermoplastic properties. A different kind of plastic — thermoset —can only be formed once, and will spend the rest of its life in that shape. A common thermoset is Bakelite, made from phenol and formaldehyde. Bakelite was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907 and used in everything from radio parts to jewelry.

Polymers in high places
It's easy to think of plastics as disposable, temporary or breakable (like the toy in a kid's fast food meal), but there's a distinguished list of very non-disposable plastic items that just may surprise you. Before 1988, it was possible to manufacture — and fire — an all-plastic handgun. All-plastic handguns were banned by the government, not because of any failing of the material, but because all-plastic guns (which contain less than 3.7 ounces of metal), could slip detection by airport security devices. But plastic didn’t completely disappear from guns. The Austrian gun manufacturer Glock has been producing polymer-framed hand guns since the early 80s — and they're a favorite of law enforcement.

Other valuable plastic products are prosthetic limbs, bullet proof vests — and spaceships. After a tragic fire in 1967 claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts, NASA began developing fire-resistant materials for space operations. The result was Polybenzimidazole, a polymer that remains stable at very high temperatures, used successfully byastronauts since the 1970s and later by more terrestrial heroes like firefighters and the military.

Plastic has taken some jabs to its reputation over the years for its close connection to the oil industry (plastic contains carbon, and there's no richer source of carbon than oil), and for its starring role in environmental disasters like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But when properly recycled and reclaimed, plastic items like water bottles can live useful, and even surprising second lives. Outdoor clothing giant Patagonia has offered a clothing line made from of post-consumer plastic bottles since 1993, so that plastic bottle on your desk may one day climb a mountain as a fleece sweater.

 
 
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