When plastic was introduced in 1907, it was the first completely synthetic material ever made. It was invented by Belgium chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland.
Unlike natural materials such as wood or stone, this new human-made material could be dyed any color and molded into any shape. And it could withstand heat, acid, and weather. Baekeland called it Bakelite and used the hard, dense material to make everything from engine parts to jewelry.
Scientists went wild experimenting with plastics. In 1908, Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger invented cellophane, a thin, transparent sheet ideal for food packaging. When plastic vinyl was invented in 1926, no one really knew what to do with it. Today, it’s one of the most widely used plastics in the world. Thanks to vinyl’s chemical structure, it can be turned into anything from raincoats to appliances.
Adhesive tape — another plastic spin-off — began holding things together in 1930. Nylon — yet another plastic — was created in 1938 and was first used for toothbrush bristles. Two years later it was turned into women’s stockings and launched a trend that still continues. Scientists continue to create new types of plastic. For instance, the plastic Starlite can survive even a laser beam or blowtorch.
Huge amounts of plastic are dumped in landfills every year, and most of it will sit there for hundreds or thousands of years. So in 1971, James Guillet created the first biodegradable plastic. Still, plastic garbage continues to collect, and not just on land. In the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, there is a gigantic patch of floating garbage that’s mostly plastic.