Life before plastic

Stewart Brand sums up Susan Freinkel's Long Now talk: "What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of," a history of the world before plastic:

“Bakelite was invented in 1907 to replace the beetle excretion called shellac (“It took 16,000 beetles six months to make a pound of shellac.”), and was first used to insulate eletrical wiring. Soon there were sturdy Bakelite radios, telephones, ashtrays, and a thousand other things. The technology democratized consumption, because mass production made former luxury items cheap and attractive. The 1920s and ‘30s were a golden age of plastic innovation, with companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, and I. G. Farben creating hundreds of new varieties of plastic for thrilled consumers. Cellophane became a cult. Nylons became a cult. A plastics trade show in 1946 had 87,000 members of the public lining up to view the wonders. New fabrics came along—Orlon and Dacron—as colorful as the deluge of plastic toys—Barbie, the Frisbee, Hula hoops, and Silly Putty.

“Looking for new markets, the marketers discovered disposability—disposable cups for drink vending machines, disposable diapers (“Said to be responsible for the baby boom“), Bic lighters, soda bottles, medical syringes, and the infinite market of packaging. Americans consume 300 pounds of plastic a year. The variety of plastics we use are a problem for recycling, because they have to be sorted by hand. They all biodegrade eventually, but at varying rates. New bio-based polymers like “corn plastic” and “plant bottles” have less of a carbon footprint, but they biodegrade poorly. Meanwhile, thanks to the efficiencies of fracking, the price of natural gas feedstock is plummeting, and so is the price of plastic manufacture.

What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of

(Image: Plastic Power, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fxtreme's photostream)


  1. Interesting about early plastic billiard balls – they were made of celluloid, aka nitrocellulose, aka guncotton.  Possibly this is urban legend, but I have heard that they occasionally exploded in manufacturing, and sometimes even while playing.

    1. Don’t know about billiard balls, but it was the same thing that made early film stock  extremely flammable as well. As exemplified in Cinema Paradiso. They eventually solved the film problem, I guess they solved the billiard one too. Last time I played was pretty uneventful, at least.

  2. I like Bakelite… it’s the classiest of the thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resins.

  3. Vital things like replacement human heart valves and hearing aids are often made of plastic. Without plastic, our home entertainment systems would look and sound entirely different. Computer monitors might be made out of forged iron without the invention of lightweight plastic. Plastic is a pain in the ass recycling-wise, but the benefits to Humankind are immeasurable. Oops, I have to put some leftovers in some Tupperware and make a call on my plastic cellphone…

    1. oat. Cast iron? How about aluminum-magnesium alloys and glass? You know, the stuff non-crappy portable models are made from?

  4. Damn lazy beetles, look what you made us do. If you hadn’t been shellslacking out there, we never would have had to invent modern petrochemistry…

  5. The pre-plastic materials often look gorgeous, at least today, with the years of wear adding to them. But what I really look forward to is the post-plastic materials.

    1.  Heh, reminds me of something I heard on the radio yesterday – Apparently Obama was speaking at a hotel here in Denver on Wednesday, and some Republicans were protesting him on the sidewalks below. Including one woman, who carried a sign saying “Mothers in love with fracking”

      I got a good minute of laughter out of that one.

  6. Catalin, or cast phenolic plastics, is a great-looking plastic that you don’t see much of today outside of very expensive antique radios from the 1930s.

  7. The sentence  “Meanwhile, thanks to the efficiencies of fracking, the price of natural gas feedstock is plummeting, and so is the price of plastic manufacture.” makes my head hurt.

    Cheap geologically produced methane is a huge barrier to developing a sustainable bio-methane industry; by displacing the costs of fracking on to poor people living above the Marcellus Shale, we prevent the marketplace from working to benefit everyone.  In order to prevent any redistribution of wealth or power that might occur if we outlawed fracking and implemented distributed sustainable methane production, we’re literally shattering the foundations of our country and releasing poison into our aquifers.

    Every time I think a government could not possibly be more shortsighted, they go out of their way to prove me wrong.

  8. Bakelite is only the first plastic for some (fairly arbitrary) definition of plastic. Before Bakelite  we had the already-mentioned celluloid, as well as linoleum… not to mention Japanese urushi lacquerware and items made of amber. I suppose Bakelite is in first position as a well-characterized, mass-produced polymer made from chemicals whose structure was known to us – but the question ‘what was the first plastic’ just doesn’t have a simple answer.

      1. Linseed oil isn’t linoleum until after it undergoes oxidative polymerization. So it’s a polymer that can be hot rolled. The inclusion of other materials (cork dust, dyes etc.) doesn’t seem like a disqualifier given that many modern plastics do the same thing. If you want to argue that it’s not *sufficiently* moldable, or that the polymer is poorly characterized, or that the cork constitutes too much of the material for it to be a ‘true plastic’ – well, I don’t exactly disagree, but as I said, it all depends on exactly how you define ‘plastic’. 

  9. When I was your age,

    • We carried our drinking water in our cupped hands when we went jogging.
    • Our cell phones were made of copper and gave off electric shocks when they rang.
    • Baseball helmets were made of ceramic, the shards would stick into our skulls.
    • “The Graduate” was not a very funny movie concept.

  10. The price of natural gas may be plummeting, but the reality is that the price of materials (plastic pellets) to molders of thermoplastics is not plummeting, nor is there any reason to expect it will plummet in the future.  One reason is that natural gas is not the prime source for the raw materials for plastic feedstock.

    Pricing is based on the law of supply and demand, and demand for plastic materials continues to outpace supply.

    That’s the facts.

  11. Whoa, what’s this statement about plastic biodegrading? 

    It does not biodgrade, they do photodegrade if exposed to enough sunlight, but this should really be clarified.  Plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it doesn’t degrade like food items which break down into reusable elements.  Plastic will always be with us – always. 

    In fact, modern land fills are lined with clay and plastic to effectively seal the bottom of the fill and keep elements that are known to contaminate surrounding soil at bay. 

    1. I agree; the article has it exactly backwards: petroleum-based plastics never biodegrade. Ref: The Great Pacific Garage Patch.

      Also, the point of corn- and soy-based plastics was that they DO biodegrade—in a matter of months.

  12. honest to FSM, I love bakelite and real shellac.  Then again, at a young age i was an apprentice wind instrument repairmen, and the repairable plastic instruments were bakelite and pads were attached and floated with shellac.

    i hope to see a bakelite Renaissance someday. while it is harder to mill than say delrin, it has such a wonderful density and feeling of permanence.

    1. Yes, agreed – bakelite and real shellac – nothing like them. 

      My introduction to bakelite first came from my mom’s mom who was born in 1914 had many cool, old b-lite pieces, both bought new, by her, and collected. My grandmother’s hobby inspired my camera collecting hobby. When I started at age 9 in 1980, all cameras at garage sales were b-lite.  I think bakelite still has uses in the 21st century and it’s unfortunate it’s not used more often presently.  

      BTW, Jeremy, did you work at Symantec in Eugene/Springfield circa 1998-early 2000s? If you were the Jeremy P. there, your IT support help-desk skilz rocked.

  13. Maybe it’s discussed in the link —  I haven’t read it — but Boing Boing seems like the place to talk about hemacite.

    I don’t have much to say about it, though, other than it’s composed of slaughterhouse blood and sawdust.  But isn’t that enough?

  14. Another book worth reading is Stephen Finichell’s “Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century.”

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