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History of Microplastics

The first synthesized polymer was created by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. He treated cellulose from cotton fiber with camphor, and was able to mold it for use in products that previously used ivory.The invention of fully synthetic polymers by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, created a world where people were able to package goods, create new products, and build new things. Baekeland created phenol-formaldehyde resin called Bakelite by stopping the condensation reaction between phenol and formaldehyde during the liquid phase.

Plastics began to replace many of the natural materials used throughout society. Inventions of Nylon, Plexiglas, Polyethylene, and other polymers limited the amount of natural resources that were being consumed by humans. Society began to view plastics as a way to save the environment. Polymers began to replace many natural products, and were used to create toys, packaging, car parts, and even cosmetic abrasives.

In the 1940s, as plastics began to be used for more things, manufacturers began to look for a way to transport the polymers before they were molded into items for sale. They came up with plastic resin pellets, or nurdles. Manufactured at sizes less than 5mm in diameter, these pellets could be melted into a molten liquid form and then molded into desired shapes.

During this time as well, as companies began to invest in polymer research, scientists began to create polymers that had a variety of uses. They were used for clothing, packaging, and many other products that humans use every day.

Starting in the 1960s, concerns about the waste population of plastic came to be a major concern of environmentalists. Advertisements and public service announcements advocating for recycling and reduction of plastic began to pop up on radios and televisions. In 1972 the first recycling plant was opened in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. However, as the population increased, and as plastic became more of a ubiquitous material, it became cost inefficient to recycle any significant percentage of plastic to be recycled. Since 91% of plastic is not recycled, the synthetic polymers collect in large piles that litter the earth.

Primary microplastics began to be regulated in the 1980s, as microbeads began to be removed by some corporations from personal products. Since then there has been some legislation that aims combat the widespread use of microplastics. In 2015 the Microbead-Free Waters Act was passed by Congress, which banned the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products, such as facial scrubs and toothpastes. Similar laws have been passed in the UK and Japan. The European Union is currently conducting a scientific facts review on the effects of microplastics, and are expected to release a scientific opinion in mid 2019 on whether there should be legislation passed by the European Union.


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