That's a great question that many people are not even asking.  What is this ubiquitous material that's in our lives every day and is part of a global waste crisis in many places on earth?
Modern-day plastic has been developed over the last 170 years or so into the different types we see today.  It started off as a humble, nobly-purposed alternative to ivory called celluloid (generally, over time it had different names according to the inventors) in the mid-1850s through the early 1920s when more and better types of plastic were discovered.
In the 1950s we began to see the plastics still used in today's packaging: polypropylene, expanded polystyrene (styrofoam), PET, HDPE, and others.  These plastics are essentially the ones we still use today!  Though some formulations have changed due to health and environmental concerns.
More technically, plastics are polymers which are larger groups of molecules composed of linked monomers.  Plastic is a synthesis of several elements, often products of natural gas, crude oil, and salts (with other additives depending on the purpose of the material).  For instance, PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride, the name reflecting the use of Chloride which is a common agent in plastic.
Just as plastic once provided a substitute for a dwindling, precious, and cruel resource in ivory, now we should be searching for a substitute for the dwindling precious resource of our time: environmental health.
Suggested reading:
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel
US Generates More Plastic Trash Than Any Other Nation




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