1.3 Versatile plastic
The first viable and economic methods for producing the synthetic materials now commonly described collectively as ‘plastics’ were developed in 1907, by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York State who invented ‘Bakelite’. In the decades that followed, a wide range of similar materials were developed, and ‘plastic’ became a household name. The most evident property of the new materials was their formability: most plastic materials can be moulded into virtually any desired shape. Most plastics have a much lower strength than metals, but this disadvantage is often outweighed by plastics having a much lower density and cost when compared to metals.
Polymer is a collective name for all materials that are formed from long chain molecules. There are naturally occurring materials that are polymers, such as silk, wool, cellulose and proteins. Plastics is a collective term often used for synthetic polymers, whether or not they exhibit plasticity.
The mass production of plastics in the late 1950s saw the development of many plastic toys, including construction-based plastic toys such as LEGO®, which used plastics tough enough to be assembled and disassembled many times. Figure 8 shows some of the best-selling toys that are made of plastic.