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The Development of Plastics

Updated on 12 December, 2022
Mrinal Mandal

Mrinal Mandal

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When rubber was first commercially produced in Europe during the nineteenth century, it rapidly became a very important commodity, particularly in the fields of transportation and electricity. However, during the twentieth century a number of new synthetic materials, called plastics, superseded natural rubber in all but a few applications.

Rubber is a polymer—a compound containing large molecules that are formed by the bonding of many smaller, simpler units, repeated over and over again. The same bonding principle—polymerization—underlies the creation of a huge range of plastics by the chemical industry.

The first plastic was developed as a result of a competition in the USA.

In the 1860s, $10,000 was offered to anybody who could replace ivory—supplies of which were declining—with something equally good as a material for making billiard balls. The prize was won by John Wesley Hyatt with a material called celluloid. 

Celluloid was made by dissolving cellulose, a carbohydrate derived from plants, in a solution of camphor dissolved in ethanol. This new material rapidly found uses in the manufacture of products such as knife handles, detachable collars and cuffs, spectacle frames and photographic filmWithout celluloidthe film industry could never have got off the ground at the end of the 19th century.

Celluloid can be repeatedly softened and reshaped by heat, and is known as a thermoplastic.

In 1907, Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist working in the USA, invented a different kind of plastic, by causing phenol and formaldehyde to react together. Baekeland called the material Bakelite, and it was the first of the thermosets—plastics that can be cast and moulded while hot, but cannot be softened by heat and reshaped once they have set. Bakelite was a good insulator, and was resistant to water, acids and moderate heat. With these properties it was soon being used in the manufacture of switcheshousehold items such as knife handles, and electrical components for cars.

Soon chemists began looking for other small molecules that could be strung together to make polymers.

In the 1930s British chemists discovered that the gas ethylene would polymerize under heat and pressure to form a thermoplastic they called polythene.

Polypropylene followed in the 1950s. Both were used to make bottles, pipes and plastic bags.

A small change in the starting material—replacing a hydrogen atom in ethylene with a chlorine atom—produced PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a hardfireproof plastic suitable for drains and gutters. And by adding certain chemicals, a soft form of PVC could be produced, suitable as a substitute for rubber in items such as waterproof clothing. 

A closely related plastic was Teflon, or PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene). This had a very low coefficient of friction, making it ideal for bearings, rollers, and non-stick frying pans. 

Polystyrene, developed during the 1930s in Germany, was a clearglass-like material, used in food containers, domestic appliances and toys. Expanded polystyrene—a white, rigid foam—was widely used in packaging and insulation.

Polyurethanes, also developed in Germany, found uses as adhesives, coatings, and—in the form of rigid foams—as insulation materials. They are all produced from chemicals derived from crude oil, which contains exactly the same elements—carbon and hydrogen—as many plastics.

The first of the man-made fibres, nylon, was also created in the 1930s. Its inventor was a chemist called Wallace Carothers, who worked for the Du Pont company in the USA. He found that under the right conditions, two chemicals— hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid—would form a polymer that could be pumped out through holes and then stretched to form long glossy threads that could be woven like silk. Its first use was to make parachutes for the US armed forces in World War II. In the post-war years nylon completely replaced silk in the manufacture of stockings. Subsequently many other synthetic fibres joined nylon, including Orion, Acrilan and Terylene. Today most garments are made of a blend of natural fibres, such as cotton and wool, and man-made fibres that make fabrics easier to look after.

The great strength of plastic is its indestructibility. However, this quality is also something of a drawback: beaches all over the world, even on the remotest islands, are littered with plastic bottles that nothing can destroy.

Nor is it very easy to recycle plastics, as different types of plastic are often used in the same items and call for different treatments.

Plastics can be made biodegradable by incorporating into their structure a material such as starch, which is attacked by bacteria and causes the plastic to fall apart.

Other materials can be incorporated that gradually decay in sunlight—although bottles made of such materials have to be stored in the dark, to ensure that they do not disintegrate before they have been used.

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Questions 1-7

Complete the table below

Choose NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from the passages for each answer

Write your answer in boxes 1-7 on your answer sheet.

Name of plasticDate of inventionOriginal regionPropertyCommon use
  1. _____
    Answer: photographic film    (This is contained in the excerpt where the author talks about the creation of celluloid and how it found applications in photographic film, detachable collars, and others) 



2. _____
Answer: Bakelite (It is mentioned in the passage as the creation of Leo Baekeland)    


1907USCan be cast and moulded but cannot be softened by heat3. _____
Answer: switches   (It is mentioned in the Bakelite section in the passage) 
household items and car parts
Polythene19304. _____
Answer: Britain/UK (The passage mentions how British chemists discovered polythene)    
Rigid PVC  5. _____
Answer: fireproof    PVC is mentioned as a hard and fireproof material suitable for drains and gutters)
Polystyrene1930sGermany6. _____
Answer: clear and glass-like    (The passage clearly mentions how polystyrene is clear and glass-like)
Food container
Polyurethanes Germany

7. _____ foams
Answer: rigid  (The passage mentions how polyurethanes were used as rigid foams, adhesives, coatings, and also for insulation purposes) 


Adhesives, coatings and insulation

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Questions 8-13

Do the following statements agree with the information in Reading Passage?

In boxes 8-13 on your answer sheet write

TRUE if the statement agrees with the information

FALSE if the statement contradicts the information

NOT GIVEN if there is no information about the statement

8. _____The chemical structure of plastic is very different from that of rubber.
Answer: FALSE    (The passage talks about how rubber is a polymer with large molecules created through the bonding of several simpler and smaller units. The same polymerization or bonding principle applies to the development of plastics in the chemical industry. It can be inferred that they are both formed through a similar procedure of bonding, while both are polymers and hence they have similar chemical structures)

9. _____ John Wesley was a famous chemist.
Answer: NOT GIVEN (The passage mentions how $10,000 was won as a prize by John Wesley Hyatt with a material known as celluloid, which implies that he could successfully replace ivory with the same. However, nothing is mentioned about him becoming a famous chemist in the future)

10. _____ Celluloid and Bakelite react to heat in the same way.
Answer: FALSE    (The passage talks about how cellulite may be repeatedly reshaped and softened through heat and it is called a thermoplastic. Bakelite was the first thermoset or plastic to be molded or cast while it was hot, although it could not be softened with the application of heat or reshaped upon being set. It is thus clear that they react to heat in different ways)

11. _____ The mix of different varieties of plastic can make the recycling more difficult.
Answer: TRUE    (The passage states how recycling plastics is not easy since various kinds of plastics are used for making similar items, and this requires varying treatments)

12. _____ Adding starch into plastic can make plastic more durable.
Answer: FALSE    (The passage mentions how plastics can be turned into biodegradable elements through integrating starch into their structure, which is eventually attacked by bacteria, leading to it disintegrating. This clearly does not make plastic more durable and harder to break down)

13. _____ Some plastic containers have to be preserved in special conditions.
Answer: TRUE (The passage states that bottles created from plastic should be stored in the dark in order to make sure that they do not end up disintegrating prior to their usage)

Answer Table: 

1. photographic film8. FALSE
2. Bakelite9. NOT GIVEN
3. switches10. FALSE
4. Britain/UK11. TRUE
5. fireproof12. FALSE
6. clear and glass-like13. TRUE
7. rigid 

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