1 “Welcome to Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future,” a voice announced in 1957 to Disneyland visitors who entered a four-bay pod, built almost entirely from plastic. Even the clothes in the future’s closets were made of it.
2 When the Walt Disney Company brought down the wrecking ball on the exhibit 10 years later, it bounced right off. That stuff is hardy!
3 Today the world makes and consumes about 600 billion pounds of plastic yearly, and the market is still growing about 5 percent a year.
4 Plastics are made from polymers—enormous molecules that link hundreds of thousands of small molecular units known as monomers.
5 Most polymeric chains are l-o-n-g; like strings of beads, they can fold and curl.
6 The most common plastic, polyethylene—composed of sprawling hydrocarbon chains—is used in grocery bags and bottles.
7 Speaking of plastic grocery bags, in 2009 Americans used 102 billion of them. Strung together they would circle the Earth 776 times.
8 The story of plastic began in the 1850s, when British inventor Alexander Parkes combined the organic compound cellulose (from plant cell walls), nitric acid, and solvents to form “Parkesine,” a flexible material he introduced in 1862 at the Great Exhibition in London.
9 Unfortunately, cellulose nitrate is highly flammable. Also, when scaling up on production, Parkes scaled down on expenses. His easily cracked plastic was a commercial failure.
10 Along came American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. In 1907 he heated wood alcohol and coal tar in an autoclave and cooled the amber mixture to create fire-resistant Bakelite. His “Material of a Thousand Uses” was molded into telephones, home appliances, cameras, and, oh, 997 other shapes.
11 A year later Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger mixed viscose (a thick, cellulose-based liquid) into an acid bath, where it could be stretched into sheets. He washed the sheets with bleach and softening agents like glycerol. He called his creation “cellophane,” after cellulose and diaphane, French for transparent.
12 Cellophane became the basis of Scotch tape, invented in 1930 by banjo-playing 3M engineer Richard Drew. Its name is pejorative: One day a frustrated company tester yelled, “Take this tape back to those Scotch [miserly] bosses … and tell them to put more adhesive on it!”
13 In 1940 cellophane polled as the third most beautiful word in the English language, behind mother and memory.
14 Bacteria and fungi are no match for most plastic molecules, which are too huge for the microbes to digest.
15 Which is why the 31 million tons of plastic waste loaded into American landfills each year retains its Barbie doll and pink flamingo shapes pretty much forever.
16 Although they don’t easily biodegrade, some plastics “photodegrade”: Sunlight can break up the molecular bonds in the polymers, turning the material brittle and causing it to break into small, often microscopic pieces.
17 Plastic litter is swept through storm drains and out to sea. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating whether environmentalists’ warnings of “13,000 pieces of litter per square kilometer” hold water (groan).
18 Meanwhile, there is no dearth of creative recyclers, like design photographer Tomaas, who has created a surreal hat from plastic water bottles; that’s it at left.
19 In 2011 chemists at the Swiss Institute of Technology created the largest synthetic molecule ever, a polymer called PG5, with the mass of 200 million hydrogen atoms.
20 Welcome to the future. The Swiss researchers believe that PG5 can nestle medicine in its myriad folds and, when injected into the bloodstream, deliver a therapeutic dose to the right locations in the body.
Rebecca Coffey is a regular contributor to DISCOVER. She also writes for Psychology Today and Scientific American.