History of Plastic

All plastic is made up of polymers, long chains of small molecules which are interlinked to make long complicated new molecules. This gives them their characteristic qualities. There are many natural polymers like wood, horn, amber and bone.


Industrial plastic has been around for relatively short time. Celluloid was discovered by the Brit Parkes Hyatt in 1855. The first factory was started in1868 in the US by the brothers Hyatt, who also named it. The impetus was the need for billiard balls that until then were mainly made of elephant tusks ivory which was in short supply.
By using dye and fillers it could be used to simulate all kinds of natural materials like ivory, tortoiseshell, horn and amber. For that reason, soon all kinds of decorative objects were made with it. It made photography easier and movies possible by making thin celluloid sheets covered with a photosensitive emulsion. .Because of its high flammability celluloid was eventually replaced by later discovered plastics. It is still used for ping pong balls


The Belgian scientist and inventor Dr. Leo Baekeland played an important role in the history of plastic. In 1909, eighteen years after his emigration to the United States, he would become world famous with a phenol-formaldehyde plastic, which he called Bakelite after himself. This plastic has had a myriad of uses including the production of radios, ashtrays, and telephones, some of which are now collector’s items.

Bakelite is still used for, among other, electrical switches and billiard balls.

After the invention of Bakelite, science was applied to the development of new plastics and the polymers era dawned. In the 1930s several plastic materials came on the market, of which nylon was the most important. Nylon was the first modern super plastic.

New products

After 1945 the plastic industry moved into high gear. The new material could not only be applied to existing products but totally new products became also possible due to the characteristics of polymers.

Today, plastics and rubber play a vital role in our society.

Synthetic fibers are used, for example, for making light and comfortable clothes. The automotive industry uses plastic and rubber for reducing the weight of the car, reducing fuel consumption and improving safety.

Modern health care could not exist without this material. Plastics are used for flexible tubing for infusions, syringes, suture material, dressings, contact lenses, heart valves and artificial knees.


In addition to natural gas, oil is the main raw material for the production of plastics. In the refinery, crude oil is separated into several fractions (components) by distillation. In the fractionator gas, gasoline, kerosene and gas oil are separated at different cooking temperatures.
All fractions consist of hydrocarbon compounds which are all of different size and structure of the molecules.

The most important fraction for the production of plastics is the raw gasoline called naphtha.

The resulting gasoline is transformed to ethylene, propylene, butylene and other hydrocarbon compounds by splitting of molecules under the influence of heat, catalysts and solvents, referred to as ‘cracking’. The plastics industry uses about 4 percent of all petroleum products leaving the refinery.