So, let’s get rid of plastic

Yeah? Perhaps not all plastic?

Our forebears did not use any synthetic products. Natural (animal fibre and bone) and mineral (iron, copper, etc) resources met most purposes.

So maybe we can carry on using plastics from natural sources, such as these…

Source Substance Used For…
Casein  glue
Formaldehyde  glue
Insects Shellac  French polishing
Plants Cellulose Acetate  table tennis balls
 cloth, photographic film, handles
Cellulose Cellophane wrapping
Bitumen  roads, flat roof
Trees Latex




resin paint

semi-precious decoration

Nitrocellulose (patented in 1862), was created from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent.
In 1868, Celluloid was produced by plasticizing the nitrocellulose with camphor
Cellophane is made by dissolving natural cellulose in alkali and carbon disulphide to make a viscous solution. Created in 1900, patented in 1912, it was refined to become water and moisture proof by applying a nitrocellulose lacquer.
As well as packaging a variety of food items, it is used for such industrial applications as a base for self-adhesive tapes, a semi-permeable membrane in a certain type of battery, as dialysis tubing, and as a release agent in the manufacture of fibreglass and rubber products. Because of its permeability to moisture, cellophane used for manufacturing wrapped tobacco products, and general product packaging.
The polluting effects of carbon disulfide and other by-products of the process used to make viscose may have caused manufacturers to look for other products.
However, cellophane itself is 100% biodegradable, and that has increased its popularity as a food wrapping.

“But,” you cry, “what about plastic stuff made from petrochemicals?”

Petrochemicals derive from petroleum oil, a “fossil fuel”. Decayed plant material not yet pressured into coal is called peat. Cavemen burned both peat and coal for warmth.
Greek historian Plutarch of the 1st century mentions “external fires,” possibly referring to the ground fires lit when natural gas escapes from the ground and is ignited by lightning.
In battle, Alexander the Great burned petroleum to fend off enemy war elephants.
Asphalt, a derivative of petroleum, was used by the Egyptians to mummify corpses.
In the United States, the Hopi Indians burned coal for cooking and heating during the 1300s.
Virginia settlers discovered coal in 1673, but did not use it commercially until the 1740s.
Fossil fuels became the primary source of energy for the Industrial Revolution.
(Here for verification)

The first petrochemical substance in most households was bakelite, used in lightbulb sockets and pot lid handles, for example, as it is nonconductive of electricity and resistant to heat. It was first created back in 1907, in New York (Yonkers). Its chemical name is {deep breath} poly-oxy-benzyl-methyl-engly-colan-hydride {hyphenated here for pronunciation help only}, and it’s a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It became popular too for use as a polish, and in ornaments, cigar holders, letter openers, radio set casings, and telephones.  (Here to verify)

Bakelite Products
Bakelite and Art Deco

Obviously there’s also petroleum (petrol), or gasoline itself. As the American Heritage Dictionary defines it, petroleum is a “thick, flammable, yellow-to-black mixture of gaseous, liquid, and solid hydrocarbons that occurs naturally beneath the earth’s surface, can be separated into fractions including natural gas, gasoline, naphtha, kerosene, fuel, and lubricating oils, paraffin wax, and asphalt, and is used as raw material for a wide variety of derivative products.” In other words, petroleum is much more than oil.|
Those derivative products include…
Ethylene: used to make plastics and films, as well as detergents, synthetic lubricants, and styrenes: used to make protective packaging.
Propylene: a gas used for fuel, and to make polypropylene, used to make anything from carpets to structural foam.
Butanes: are hydrocarbon gases, generally used for fuel and in industry. Butadiene is used in manufacturing synthetic rubbers.
BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene are aromatic hydrocarbons, and benzene is used to make nylon fibres for clothing, packaging, and other products
(Here to verify)

Synthetic (man-made) Plastics – including petrochemicals
Oil Drill Platform

  • The main source of synthetic plastics is crude oil.
  • Coal and natural gas are also used to produce plastics.
  • Petrol, paraffin, lubricating oils and high petroleum gases are bi-products,
    produced during the refining of crude oil.
  • These gases are broken down into monomers.
    Monomers are chemical substances consisting of a single molecule.
  • A process called Polymerisation occurs when thousands of monomers are linked together.
    These compounds are called polymers.
  • Combining the element carbon with one or more other elements such as oxygen, hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine and nitrogen makes most polymers.

That’s a load of scienceTalk, yeah? Sorry about all the chemicals, but I’m just laying the foundations.
In Part 2, let’s look at a list of the petrochemical products we have become so accustomed to that we take them for granted.
And then, let’s see how their uses were met in the pre-plastic age. (Hint: start talking to your grandparents re their memories)

Now, your turn… what bakelite products do either you have stashed in your home (including your attic / basement  garden shed), or your parents have? Go and take a look, and, in a comment response, share its story with us all.

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