The World’s First Rubber Ball
As early as 1600 B.C., the ancient Mesoamericans first processed natural rubber into balls, bands and figurines (see below photo of a rubber ball with ancient ‘baseball bat’)…yes, natural rubber….it actually comes from trees. They would harvest latex from the Panama Rubber Tree plant and process it using liquid from the ‘Morning Glory Vine’. Skip forward thousands of years to 1839 where Nathanial Hayward and Charles Goodyear invent Vulcanized Rubber and you’ve got a serious shift into synthetic products. Basically, Goodyear added Sulfur to natural rubber creating a cross linked polymer that was stronger and harder than natural rubber. This discovery led to the modern era of rubber and plastics in general….ever wonder where it all started and how its made?
Mass production of plastics started circa World War 1, the first plastic being Polystyrene (PS) and PVC. The coffee you sip every day is through a PS lid. PVC, or Polyvinyl Chloride, was invented around the same time and is used to make toys, piping, garden furniture and film. PVC is the 3rd most used plastic.
In 1933, Polyethylene (PE) was discovered and used for plastic film like shrink wrap and bags.
PET, or Polyethylene Terephthalate is used for water bottles and was invented in 1941. In 1954 Polypropylene (PP) made it’s entrance onto the plastic scene and has pretty much dominated ever since. PP is used in wide range of products and is the most used plastic along with PE.
Dow Chemical invented expanded Polystyrene, or more commonly know as ‘Styrofoam’, around the same time. These 4 types of plastic are used for a majority of our disposable plastic goods we see in our every day life, from grocery and garbage bags to coffee cups, forks and spoons. It’s pretty crazy how this all came from ancient Latin American’s messing around with some funny looking trees so they could play ball.
So, we’ve covered where plastic came from and when, so let’s get into the ‘how’. How is plastic made? Plastic comes from petroleum. The process from oil to plastic is explained below as simply as possible.
- Petroleum is drilled and sent to a refinery
- Crude oil and natural gas are refined into ethane, propane and a multitude of other products, one being fuel for vehicles
- Using high temperature furnaces, ethane and propane are cracked into ethylene and propylene.
- Catalyst is combined with ethylene and propylene in a reactor, resulting in a polymer ‘fluff’ which resembles laundry detergent
- The fluff is added into a continuous blender along with additives
- The mixture is fed to an extruder where it is melted
- The melted plastic is cooled and cut into small pellets
- The pellets are sold to manufacturers and molded into a range of products. Molding processes include blow(for bags and film), injection (for hard plastic products) and extrusion (for straws, pipes and hoses)
We live in a world that can’t live without plastic and it’s not all bad. Plastic gets a bad rap because of it’s inability to biodegrade in a ‘normal’ time frame. But is it worth it to have such a versatile product in our lives? If you’ve ever had a blocked artery and needed an angioplasty, you will say it sure is! (this is when they insert a balloon into your artery and pump it up to loosen the blockage) Shouldn’t we be responsible for the things we create? Isn’t this the real question? Is it plastic’s fault that the oceans will have more plastic than fish in the next few decades? Aren’t we the ones tossing it into the ocean or out our windows?
The production of plastic continues to rise and there seems to be no end in sight. And why should there be an end to the production of such a useful product? It is cheap, lightweight, strong, easily manufactured and is low in greenhouse gases to make….the list goes on and on.
In a perfect world, all plastic should be recycled and re used over and over again, but this is not happening on a large enough scale. And often the reuse of plastics weakens the structure. So, this is where we come in. Until there is a solution to plastic waste, Breakdown Plastic can help solve the landfill problem. And when we launch our plastic replacement resin, Breakdown Earth, we can potentially see an end to petroleum based plastic altogether. Wouldn’t that be swell.