Telling the Story of Plastic
The CHF collections, including this replica Bakelizer, also help document and explain the history of chemistry. The first fully synthetic plastic was made in a machine just like this. CHF Collections, photograph by Gregory Tobias.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation both tells the story of chemistry over time and highlights the importance of chemistry in addressing today’s social challenges. This combination of missions makes CHF the ideal place to learn about the influence of history on contemporary issues—including issues related to plastic. The CHF website contains a wealth of resources, including magazine articles, podcasts, and blog posts, about many different aspects of plastic.
Understanding the history of plastic requires learning about the history of many different kinds of plastic developed for many different purposes. When celluloid first appeared in the 19th century, it achieved immense popularity as the “Eternal Substitute,” a cheap replacement for more expensive goods. But, as Jane Boyd explains in Chemical Heritage, celluloid faded in popularity with the development of new polymers that, while not as versatile as celluloid, more effectively filled specific niches.
One of these new polymers, Teflon, seemed almost magical when it emerged in the 1960s. A nonstick coating on pans was a truly welcome innovation, despite some early concerns over safety. CHF’s Distillations podcast explains more about Teflon, just one of the many polymers to change daily life.
CHF is also interested in contemporary questions related to plastics. When CHF fellow Ben Grossberg attended a conference on “The Age of Plastics,” he shared his experiences on the Periodic Tabloid blog. This conference engaged important players in today’s plastic conversation and addressed questions of waste, disposability, and recycling. The magazine also considers bioplastics, a popular topic in green chemistry, but, according to Arthur Daemmrich, a complex one as well.
Designed to be enjoyed by scholars and the general public alike, the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s media offerings provide diverse and fascinating information on a variety of topics and a great place to begin to understand the history and contemporary debates about plastic.