By all accounts, Leo Baekeland had a pretty good idea that he had invented something incredible 100 years ago, when he filed for a patent on Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic.
But if we could go back in time and chat with the Belgian-American chemist and inventor, we'd find he was looking at the tip of the iceberg.
Baekeland was trying to solve a problem — he needed a replacement for natural materials like shellac that could be manufactured in higher volumes at a lower price. He accomplished that, but he also started a materials revolution that has touched nearly every manufacturing end market in the world.
Right away, Bakelite transformed the then-fledgling electric and automobile industries. Other products quickly followed, as molders set about replacing conventional materials with plastics. New processing techniques and new materials eventually gave processors an arsenal they could use to tackle just about any application.
Imagine the medical industry today without plastics. Disposable products have made health care safer and less expensive. What would packaging be like without plastics? Think of the energy that all sectors of the economy would be using to transport all of the heavier, less-efficient glass and metal products into the hands of consumers. Automobiles, appliances, business equipment, toys, aircraft, recreational products — all would be much more expensive without plastics.
In a recent interview, Jeffrey L. Meikle, a professor of American studies and art history at the University of Texas, and the author of American Plastic: A Cultural History, was given a list of environmental concerns related to plastics, and he was asked whether the continued use of plastic makes sense. Meikle's reply: “Actually, I think it does make sense. One of the things about plastic is that [it] has always been a democratizing material. It has made it possible to manufacture more cheaply things that otherwise would be too expensive for millions of people to have.”
His comment, that plastics is a “democratizing material,” is key. Plastics have improved the standard of living of millions of people around the world.
Plastics has been democratizing on the business end, too. For 10 decades, the industry has seen entrepreneurs start companies, often in little more than a garage, with low-capital investment and few customers. That's how many of today's biggest names in processing, toolmaking, recycling, equipment and materials got their start.
Plastics are the butt of jokes sometimes, or the object of consumer disdain or elitist ridicule. But there's no doubt that critics of plastics — and thoughtful leaders within the industry — have helped to make the industry stronger. They've helped to make plastics companies better places to work, and to remind the industry of its responsibility to make products safer, less toxic and easier to recycle.
We're taking an opportunity this week to look back on the past 100 years of plastics, with feature stories on a few of the trends, individuals, companies and products that have shaped the industry. We're telling just a small part of the story — the history of plastics could easily fill an encyclopedia. But we hope you enjoy the package, and we look forward to all of the new products that our readers will create that will continue to transform the industry over the next 100 years.