Who invented the plastic wrap?

What is plastic And who invented it?

The stuff that many dreams are made of: Countless things in everyday life, such as computers, cars, outfits or cell phones, are made of plastic. But how is this colorful material created, which can be used in so many different ways, and what distinguishes it?

Plastic is often used colloquially as a synonym for plastics of all kinds. Both terms describe a fascinating material that differs from other materials due to its extraordinary properties. The different shapes that are created depend on the raw material and the manufacturing process. The English call plastic "man-made material". The Greeks see a work of art in every sculpture. The Munich chemist Ernst Richard Escales coined the name plastic in 1911. Depending on the addition of additives, a wide range of plastic products is offered.

Why is plastic so popular and used around the world? There are many reasons why plastic is replacing wood, leather and metal. Because the material is robust, durable and has a low weight. It is also supple and versatile. Plastic does not rot and rots very slowly. These advantages are also the problem. Plastic garbage pollutes rivers and oceans or grows into a mountain of landfill. Only part of the plastic waste is recycled or ends up in waste incineration plants, where it provides valuable energy.

Positive characteristics

Almost all plastics are non-conductors, insulate well and are therefore used in residential construction. Further advantages are the smooth surface, which is easy to clean, and the resistance to water, acids and alkalis. The density is only half that of glass, porcelain or light metal. The matter is thus light, malleable and modelable.

Negative qualities

Plastics usually have a low temperature resistance and are not particularly scratch-resistant. As non-conductors, they become electrically charged when they rub and attract dust particles. The improper disposal of plastic waste becomes a problem with the increasing consumption of this material, because plastic has a long shelf life. The duration of rotting depends on the external circumstances.

How is plastic made?

Johannes Steindl, project assistant at the Vienna University of Technology, sums up the procedure of the individual steps from raw material to finished plastic as follows: “Plastics are either created through the chemical conversion of natural products such as rubber, cellulose and milk or are produced synthetically from crude oil, coal and natural gas. Usually the starting material is raw gasoline. These connections are broken apart in a thermal cracking process. The resulting product is separated into ethylene, propylene, butylene and other hydrocarbons. Depending on which properties are suitable for the respective purpose, plasticizers (phthalates), often also colorants and flame retardants, are added. ”Steindl specializes in macromolecular chemistry and conducts research at the Institute of Applied Synthetic Chemistry at the Vienna University of Technology.

The plastics are divided into three categories according to their characteristics: thermoplastics, thermosets and elastomers. They differ in their response to heat and pressure.


plasticExamples of possible uses
Polyethylene (PE)Plastic bags, cling film, beer crates, hoses, detergent containers, plastic buckets
Polypropylene (PP)Disposable cups, yoghurt cups, battery boxes
Polystyrene (PS)Yoghurt cup, ballpoint pen, Styrofoam ®
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)Floor coverings, drain pipes, shower curtains
Polyamide (PA)Dowels, fishing line, glasses frames, nylon, perlon
Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)Plexiglass, break-proof glazing, rulers, car accessories


plastic Examples of possible uses
Melami formaldehyde resin (MF) phenoplastsWooden spoons, furniture surface, electrical insulation material, Bakelite ®
Aminoplasts (UF)Sockets, light switches, insulating material


plasticExamples of possible uses
Polyurethane (PUR)Thermal insulation, mattresses, joint sealing, foams, Moltopren ®
Rubber Vulcanized rubberCar tires, rubber boots, latex gloves, rubber bands, pacifiers, condoms

Milestones in the history of plastics

So who invented plastic? There is no clear answer to this question. As early as the Stone Age, the Neanderthals gained bad luck by heating birch bark. It was used by collectors and hunters to fix their stone tools. The first written mention of a plastic comes from the 16th century. It is a recipe for the production of artificial horn (Galalith).

The Bavarian Benedictine monk and hobby alchemist Wolfgang Seidel experimented with goat milk and discovered in 1530 artificial horn, which is made from milk protein (casein). He describes his result as "bone-hard and wonderfully translucent". Buttons, combs and insulating materials are made from synthetic horn, also known as milk stone. Casein plastics were used to make costume jewelry until 1950.

In France in 1774 the brothers Charles and Robert Montgolfier made hydrogen-filled balloons from rubberized silk. In 1839 Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber. He is one of the pioneers and inventors of the Car tire.

The car tire

Inventor: The American Charles Goodyear invented hard rubber in 1839. British veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop invented the first pneumatic tire in 1887. The French André and Edouard Michelin invented the first removable tire in 1891.

Origin: As early as the 17th century, naturalists brought a mass (rubber) made from milky tree sap from Malaysia and Brazil. The inventor Charles Goodyear discovered in 1839 that rubber changes into rubber when exposed to heat when sulfur is added. He invented hard rubber by vulcanizing rubber. 1844 (U.S. Patent No. 3633). Dunlop developed the first pneumatic tire in 1887, which was made from a cloth made of woven cotton as a tube, nailed to a wooden rim and glued. The brothers André and Edouard Michelin invented the first removable tire in 1891 and the first tubeless car tire in 1955.

The Englishman Alexander Parkes produced Parkesin in 1856, a not yet sufficiently stable precursor of celluloid, for which he received a prize at the World Exhibition in London in 1862. The brothers John Wesley and Isaiah Hyatt, USA, continued the Parkes experiments in 1868. John Wesley Hyatt, known in America as the “father of the plastic industry”, developed celluloid from nitrocellulose and camphor as the first thermoplastic.

With industrialization, the need for the easy-to-process material also increased. Plastics opened up completely new possibilities for designers. Innovative products for the auto industry, the sporting goods industry and medicine are produced worldwide. From nylon stockings to contact lenses or packaging to the much discussed Plastic bags the product range is enough.

The plastic bag

Inventor: By chance, the German chemist Hans von Pechmann discovered a material in 1898 that his colleagues called "polymethylene". In 1935 the Englishman Michael Perrin invented “Polyethylene.” The American chemists John Paul Hogan and Robert Louis Banks produced “Polypropylene” in 1950 for the Phillips Petroleum Company.

Origin and use: A plastic bag consists of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). For the production of a plastic bag weighing approx. 20 g, approx. 40 g of crude oil are required. It is mainly used for the transport of purchases and for storage and transport of rubbish. Printed plastic bags also serve as advertising media for retailers and the consumer goods industry.

What to do with used plastic One answer is: recycling. The collected plastic packaging is separated according to the type of plastic, then shredded, washed, melted and processed into granules. The resulting raw material is used to manufacture new products. That saves costs and resources. Much of the PET bottles becomes rePET bottles in the so-called bottle-to-bottle process.

The PET bottle

Inventor: The Englishmen John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson invented polyester in 1941. They succeeded in producing polyester from ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid in the laboratories of the textile company Calico Printers Association in Accrington. (GB patent number 578079)

Origin: "PET" is the short form of polyethylene terephthalate, a thermoplastic from the polyester family. Almost two liters of crude oil make one kilo of PET. That's how much you need for 15 bottles with a capacity of one liter. Several chemical reactions turn the crude oil into a viscous PET melt, which is pressed into thin rods and cut into granules. The matt white beads are the basis for the PET bottle. The two liter PET bottle started its worldwide career in 1978 in the USA

Thanks to a deposit system for PET bottles, they can be collected by type, efficiently recycled and processed into rePET bottles.

Each plastic product has a recycling code to identify the differences in the harmlessness of the various plastic products. The numbers from 01 to 07 are abbreviations for a specific plastic. For example, 01 denotes PET, 03 PVC.

But what do these codes say about the respective plastic? The recycling codes provide information about the respective plastics and their composition. In the production of plastic, additives are added that are not firmly bound and can escape. For example plasticizers (phthalates), bisphenol A (BPA), brominated flame retardants and organotin compounds. These substances are poisonous and harmful to health. Products with the following labels should therefore be avoided: 03 PVC, 06 PS, 07 O and PC. The recycling code is also used to classify the packaging correctly before the recycling process.

Plastic story - to be continued

The areas in which plastics are used can hardly be counted today. Since many of them are made from petroleum products, they are valuable sources of energy and replace coal, petroleum and natural gas. In Austria, plastic packaging is collected together with residual waste and incinerated in waste incineration plants. The energy generated in this way supplies municipal facilities and district heating networks.

But plastics also shape the material culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. The “generation of plastic” combines many of the conveniences of modern life with it. Industries such as the music and film industry or photography were created as a result. For a long time, plastic had the reputation of being a cheaper substitute for high-quality natural substances. The versatility of the material gives designers a new freedom. For the economy, environmental protection and conservation of resources play an important role in the development of new products.

Did you know that

... three out of four PET bottles in Austria are properly disposed of in separate collections and then recycled?

... PET beverage bottles contain on average over 30 percent PET recyclate, and even 100 percent in individual bottles?

... the calorific value of one kilogram of plastic, according to ARA - Altstoff Recycling Austria AG, roughly corresponds to that of one liter of heating oil?

But plastic also has its downsides - keyword: plastic carpets in the oceans, microplastics in animal stomachs, mountains of plastic waste in once untouched regions. Scientists are therefore working hard to make plastics more compatible - or to find replacements. It remains to be seen whether the projects will be successful. But one thing is certain: the last chapter in plastic history has not yet been written.