Believe it or not, plastic is organic, in the sense that its compounds are all carbon-based. Plastic has been the whipping boy for environmentalists around the world. To be sure, we could do better about extraneous plastic packaging and the like, but there are amazing things about the stuff, and without plastic in its manifold expressions, the world and its cultures would be radically different.
The development of plastics began in earnest during chemical engineering’s heyday in the nineteenth century. Entrepreneurs were looking for chemists and inventors who could develop new materials. Chemicals were inexpensive and there was little to no government oversight regulating their sale. Inventors would create their products at their home labs. Goodyear’s founder actually developed synthetic plastics while in prison.
It’s hard to imagine a world without plastic. Elastomers keep our athletic gear from falling off our body. Nylon revolutionized the fashion industry, providing an affordable alternative to silk. This change democratized women’s stockings and a number of other clothing items. Music would never be the same after vinyl, which allowed greater dissemination of and exposure to tunes and led to the rise of more than a few rock stars.
One of plastic’s greatest cultural impacts has been through celluloid, a plastic used for motion pictures. Without celluloid, Butch Cassidy would have been buried in the sands of time. But a man from a late-1800s Wild West cadre still retains deep cultural resonance—and brings to mind images of a young Paul Newman. Celluloid has immortalized bygone eras, people, and places.