25 Greatest Inventions of the 20th Century: Bakelite

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Plastic has been with us for so long that we forget how much it has changed the world, mostly for the better. But the first completely artificial plastic wasn’t called plastic: It was called Bakelite. Before Bakelite, people used rubber, making it into useful shapes. But in the 19th century, people started making new materials from plants and milk. Bakelite was the first completely artificial plastic, made by Belgian American chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. Bakelite had many advantages over earlier materials. It didn’t conduct electricity, it was lightweight and it didn’t burn easily. After you heated it into shape, it was tough and durable. It was also good to look at, with a lacquered appearance. Coco Chanel made Bakelite jewelry. There were toys and radios. The instantly recognizable Bakelite phone designed by Norwegian designer Jean Heiberg for Eriksson in the 1930s is still a collectible. Since the invention of Bakelite, chemists have cooked up a dizzying number of plastics, each with a different use. Plastics cover electric wires and keep food fresh. They are used to make toys, smartphones and car interiors. They travel to other planets. They make modern life convenient. But with the good comes the bad. Plastics litter streets, the countryside, the oceans. They can last for hundreds of years. Not all plastics can be recycled. The challenge for chemists is to find a way to deal with plastic waste so that humanity can still benefit from this marvelous invention. (T) This article was provided by The Japan Times Alpha.

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