Chemical Reaction that Changed the World - Sarthak Anand


Plastic is a material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and can be molded into solid objects. Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass, but they often contain other substances. They are usually synthetic, most commonly derived from petrochemicals, but many are partially natural.

Who created plastic ?

The first truly synthetic plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland. Baekeland was a Belgium chemist living in New York. Baekeland earned his wealth from selling the first commercially successful photographic paper to George Eastman for $750,000 in 1898. This gave him the freedom and money that he needed to pursue his own research leading to the invention of plastic. In 1905, he found that when he combined formaldehyde and phenol, he produced a material that bound all types of powders together. He called this material Bakelite – after himself – and it was the first thermosetting plastic in the world.

However, the first man-made plastic was created by Alexander Parkes who publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. But the plastic created by Baekeland is considered to be the first truly plastic as the Parkesine got cracked and was flammable, so was not a total success. Alexander Parkes was a metallurgist (Metallurgists are materials scientists who specialize in metals such as steel, aluminum, iron, and copper) and inventor from Birmingham, England. He created Parkesine, the first man-made plastic.


  • The word ‘plastic’ comes from the Greek word "plastikos", meaning ‘capable of being shaped and moulded.
  • Plastic as a whole was very important in World War Two. ‘Plane cockpits were made of Perspex, polythene was used in insulate radar and plastic was used to make synthetic rubber for tyres.
  • 13 billion plastic bags are issued each year -an average of 300 per adult per year
  • Every year we make enough plastic film to shrink-wrap the state of Texas.
  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1 million sea creatures every year.
  • An estimated 13 billion plastic bottles are disposed of each year.
  • A plastic cup can take 50 - 80 years to decompose.

Benefits of Plastic

  • It is light, easily shaped, strong, and inexpensive.
  • Its ability to guard against contamination makes it useful in sterile medical environments such as hospitals.
  • Plastic kitchenware offers a practical alternative to glass and ceramic dishes.
  • Plastic preserves flavour and freshness when used to store food and beverages.
  • Leak-proof and child-resistant plastic containers are useful for holding dangerous household products such as bleach, ammonia,and other caustic cleaners.
  • Plastic packaging withstands the rigors of shipping, and plastic containers provide good storage solutions at home and in the office.
  • Plastics can even help you conserve your own energy! Plastic packaging means lighter shopping to carry home.
  • When properly installed, plastic insulation can cut heat or cold loss at home or school by up to 70%, making it so much warmer or cooler, cosier and energy-efficient!
  • Plastic is an ideal material for use in car manufacturing. A modern mid-range car contains about 11% plastic material components. That means less weight, less fuel consumption and therefore less CO2 emissions
  • Today’s refrigerators use plastics in their insulation systems to ensure that your food and drinks stay fresher and cooler for longer whilst using less energy!

Risks of Plastic

Plastic has many negative effects on the environment this is because:

  • Plastic is not biodegradable, but photodegradable. And in reality, most plastic does not ever disappear, but becomes long-lasting "plastic dust". When items like plastic bags break down, they readily soak up (and release) toxins that then contaminate soil and water, as well as harming animals that ingest plastic fragments. And there's no winning: producing recycled materials uses copious amounts of energy. A better solution would be to reduce use of plastics altogether
  • Every square mile of ocean has 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. That is why over a million sea birds, whales, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, and so on die from plastic debris that ends up in our oceans and seas. 100,000 sharks are also part of the death toll.
  • In addition to not breaking down fast, plastic materials also break down dangerously. A lot of plastic already contains toxins, such as phthalates, BPA and flame retardants. And as plastic breaks down, it can absorb many dangerous toxins more easily, such as damaging pesticides like DDT, PCB and PAH.
  • The production of plastic for the U.S. alone uses 331 billion barrels of petroleum, equal to 5 percent of the national consumption of petroleum. Petroleum production and its use plays a harmful role in polluting the environment, as its use contaminates the water and air.
  • Toxicity in plastic comes from lead, cadmium and mercury which have been found in multiple amounts of fish in the ocean.
  • Humans are also heavily affected by contamination of plastic because as mentioned before there is a lot of contaminated plastic floating in this ocean and sometimes animals ingest the chemicals from the plastic which also affects us because we as humans eat those animals which results in us getting sick and intoxicated. Therefore, human health is at a great risk because of plastic pollution.
  • The pollution of plastic also disrupts and affects the food chain as it contaminates all the species involved.
  • The toxins in plastic are also linked to causing diseases and problems like cancer, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues
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Impact on Society

Plastic is one of the most used substances in every one's life.Life without plastic would be a nightmare for everyone eg. children wouldn't have computers, chips, toys etc. Also without plastic being invented plastic surgery, plastic bottles, modern lights or even air conditioning wouldn't have existed.

Plastic is used in everything around us such as, Carbonated drinks bottles, peanut butter jars, plastic film, microwavable packaging, Wide range of inexpensive uses including supermarket bags, plastic bottles and many more. Basically everything around is made up of, therefore, plastic has impacted our lifes a lot as we are mostly dependent on plastic. In developed countries, about a third of plastic is used in packaging and another third in buildings such as piping used in plumbing or vinyl siding. Other uses include automobiles (up to 20% plastic), furniture, and toys.

Plastic has some negative impacts and some positive impacts. Some negative impacts include all the risks mentioned above. Some positive impacts include, plastics making our life easier.

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There are many different types of plastics and all of them have different chemical properties and reactions. One of the most common type of plastic is Polyethylene.


Its primary use is in packaging (plastic bags, plastic films, geomembranes, containers including bottles, etc.).

Chemical Formula: (C2H4)n

Polyethylene is made up of many polymers of ethylene (C2H2) with various values of n

A polymer is a large molecule or a macromolecule

The ethylene molecule is C2H4 (CH2=CH2)

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Most plastics contain organic polymers. The vast majority of these polymers are based on chains of carbon atoms alone or with oxygen, sulfur, or nitrogen as well

Type of reaction : Synthesis as elements join together to make a compound like plastic

Plastics are derived from organic products. The materials used in the production of plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.

There are many different types of plastics, and they can be grouped into two main polymer families:

Thermoplastics (which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling)

Thermosets (which never soften when they have been moulded)

The two major processes used to produce plastics are called polymerisation and polycondensation, and they both require specific catalysts. In a polymerisation reactor, monomers like ethylene and propylene are linked together to form long polymers chains. Each polymer has its own properties, structure and size depending on the various types of basic monomers used.


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