Toxic Plasticity
By R. D. Flavin


Giant Rubber Duck before attacking a city...

     Once upon an innocent, ignorant, and arrogant time, we thought a small plastic ducky floating from Japan to Norway was geeky cool. Now, we may soon experience a plastic apocalypse because of our self-poisoning. Years back it was debates over whether a certain plastic would break down in the soil between several hundred or a thousand years or more. Our production and dependence on plastic is environmentally suicidal and the toxic plasticity of the future is likely to be worse than soiling oneself - it's immanentizing the eschaton. Some damage is irreparable and death and destruction dance at the wedding of pollution and the capitalist solutions (yeah, it'll be polygamous). It won't be murder by plastic duckies (except maybe from the Giant Ducks - see above), but chemicals, gases, and the masses of artificial infestation which are here now and those we await.

     I've long been aware of the advise to get a new toothbrush every couple of months, replace your kitchen sponges every few weeks, and though most wash and scrub their cutting boards, if they are wood or plastic it's recommended you buy a new cutting board every year or so. Well, into that mix now steps the dangers of plastic 'food' wrap. It's said to still be okay to cover leftovers in the fridge, but NEVER to use plastic wrap in the microwave as it'll release lots of the chemical additive bisphenol A or 'BPA'. Worse still is the recommendation to only re-use plastic bottles a couple of times and then recycle them, as they'll soon leak BPAs, and even more shocking is plastic containers ala Tupperware be replaced every few months as they too will eventually release BPAs into their stored contents. Ouch! First diet-soda can make one fat and now Tupperware can slowly kill you after a few months – this has been a sad year for consumers and science.

     Much like Aristotle used (or coined) the word 'atom' (< ancient Greek ἄτομος – particle incapable of further division), so too was 'plastic' used by Aristotle (< πλαστικός or plastikos – that which may be molded) in his work, Metaphysics (Book 10, section 1056). While Egyptian, Akkadian, and Persian terms for individual plant gums and malleable resins are known, the Greek plastikos was inclusive of such as well as clay – whether it was used as an adjective to describe a human character trait, I don't know.

     The manipulation and transformation of tree latex or gum-rubber was first practiced by Mesoamericans ca. 1600 BCE to fashion rubber balls which helped invent one of their most lasting and important sporting events (Hosler et al. 1999). While the rest of the world occasionally experimented with tree latex, employed and visiting Peru in 1735-1736 to establish a proper degree of meridian at the equator, the French geographer, mathematician, and member of the Académie Royale des Science, Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774), sent back samples of native rubber and eventually helped a colleague, François Fresneau, by reading aloud a paper about the nature and properties of rubber in 1751, and then assisting him in publishing the work in 1755. The pseudo-polymath and opportunist, Joseph Priestly, commented the material was good for erasing or “rubbing off” pencil marks and writing, and the material was henceforth called 'rubber'. Trials and errors subsequently abounded as the Brits tried the rubber-tree industry unsuccessfully in India and Indonesia for many years before more became known about how to stabilize and produce products made of rubber. And, of course, the advancements came from the Americas.

     The Connecticut-born metallurgist, chemist, engineer, inventor, and innovator, Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), eventually became the first to 'vulcanize' rubber (for which he received, with specific additions and processes applied to gum-rubber, a patent, US 3633 A), and got a tad of immediate recognition. He finagled a contract to provide (inferior, but easily produced) soles of shoes in Roxbury and Boston, Massachusetts, as well as other parts of the Bay State, as well as financial contracts in Philadelphia and New York City. He lost a patent case in Britain, continued on with this and that minor and insignificant improvement until he passed. The successful and famous Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded in 1898 by someone who wasn't related to, didn't know personally, used a method more advanced than anything tried by Charles Goodyear, yet the company was named after this innovative American who furthered an industry which has gone global and shall likely stay that way for many years to come.

Charles Goodyear, Alexander Parkes, Daniel Spill, and John Wesley Hyatt.

     Credited with introducing the world's first man-made plastic, the British metallurgist and inventor (with patents in the fields of rubber-making and electroplating), Alexander Parkes (1813-1890), took organic plant cellulose after being soaked in nitric acid and combined it with nitrogen, camphor, and ethyl alcohol to produce 'celluloid', which was introduced as 'Parkesine' at the 1862 Great International Exhibition held in London (and awarded a Bronze Medal for his effort). Independent business investments didn't work out for Parkes and he subsequently made it into the history books, just didn't do as well with earning profits from his invention.

     Then, as so often happened in the past and continues to the present, science and profit combined to produce ...many court cases with the occasional significant and positive result. Such was the legal and methodological back-and-forth between the inventor, Daniel Spill, who had worked with Parkes and attempted to modify 'Parkesine' and introduced a version he called 'Xylonite', a name used in earlier experiments made by Parkes and Spill, and a genius chemistry provocateur and profiteer, John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920) who was first to claim the legal necessities of invention with Celluloid (US Patent 50359), and applied this technology to the making of billiard balls with a modicum of success (though there persists a rumor some of Hyatt's billiard balls actually EXPLODED when struck – an unacceptable situation while playing pool...). Spill challenged Hyatt in court from 1877-1884, but the judge ultimately ruled the 'true' protected (though not formerly patented) invention belonged to Parkes, yet allowed both Spill and Hyatt to continue their work (which, apparently, consisted more about losing money in companies than inventing a better product).

     For the rest of the 19th century and up until ca. WWI, variations of cellulose and celluloid with additions were regularly introduced, with “viscose rayon” ruling the options for a plastic pseudo-silk until the 1940s and 1950s. Earlier experiments with various chemicals also occurred, such as the discovery of polystyrene (PS) in 1839 by the German apothecary, Johann Eduard Simon (1789-1856 created from combining erethylene and benzine with the resin of the Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar orientalis) which many years later gave rise to styrofoam. In 1872, the German chemist, Eugen Baumann (1846- 1896), accidentally discovered Polyvinyl chloride or PVC by leaving a flask of vinyl chloride in the sun for too long. Baumann never applied for a patent and PVS wasn't patented until 1913, yet it was many years later before commercial uses were applied. Attempting to improve upon rayon, the Swiss chemist and textile engineer, Jacques E. Brandenberger (1872-1955) noticed in one of his failed experiments involving wood cellulose the film peeled from the failed and useless mass of his experiment was translucent, strong and clingy, and one day gave rise to Cellophane® plastic-wrap. Chemistry, science, and commercialization soon became polyamorous and co-dependent, as all were needed to move the manufacturing and uses of 'plastic' forward.

     The first purely synthetic (chemical) – based plastic was introduced in 1909 from a mixture of phenol and formmaldehyde and tradenamed as Bakelite. Pretty much from then on it was a race by chemists and companies to invent one plastic after another. It was reckless, practically unstoppable, and now we're stuck with the Great Pacific garbage patch estimated to be about the size of the state of Texas. And, with the worst of luck, it gets much worse. There's the plastic micro-beads too small to filter out which most scientists and biologists claim have already infested just about every marine life-form there is. Oh, and now we hear 99% of all sea-birds will have some plastic in their stomachs by 2050.

     Once, a miracle compound, plastic is now the toxic which will likely kill us before our children realize we've destroyed their future. Oops doesn't even come close...


Hosler, Dorothy, Sandra L. Burkett, and Michael J. Tarkanian. 1999. “Prehistoric Polymers: Rubber Processing in Ancient Mesoamerica.” Science. 284: 1988-1991.

rethinking fish and plastic chips,

Return to