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The history and science of the plastics industry
Thursdays 9.00-9.30pm 29 Dec - 5 Jan

We live at the height of what may become known as the Plastic Age. Everything from clothes and radios to cars and packaging seems to be made of plastic. Richard Hollingham, whose grandfather worked in the early plastics industry 70 years ago, tells the history, science and future of plastics through the writings of one of the pioneers of the industry.

Richard Hannaford

1. The Birth of Plastic
'Plastics are the materials of tomorrow' Paul I Smith 
The first true plastic was developed by a German teacher Dr Adolph Spippeler in Hamburg in 1890. He mixed sour milk with formaldehyde with the intention of developing a white 'blackboard.' The resulting compound, Casein was later used for buckles, buttons and billiard balls.

As scientists developed a better understanding of organic chemistry they started to realise that oil, coal and other natural hydrocarbons could be turned into completely new materials. Business embraced the technology and a whole new industry was born.

By the 1930s bakelite had transformed design. Instead of having to craft cabinets from wood, furniture could be moulded in seconds. Designers could employ curves, textures and elaborate decoration at minimum cost in a mass production process.

As with many technologies, WW2, drove the development of the types of plastics we're familiar with today. Within a few years polystyrene, nylon and polyethylene were all commonplace and consumers couldn't get enough of them. By the 1950s it seemed everything was plastic or was covered in plastic - from chairs and cups to cutlery and carpets. Plastic was the stuff to wear from scarves to shoes, 'man-made' was the thing to have.

This programme features pioneering chemists who developed the early plastics, historians and enthusiasts who can describe the earliest products and scientists currently working in materials science. 

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1
Richard Hollingham and Richard Carcaillet inside a part-built Airbus 380.

2. The Plastic Age

The traditional plastics that shape our lives are giving way to a new generation of hybrid plastics. Composites and laminates incorporate a range of substances to create much tougher materials. From aeroplane wings and flooring to cosmetic surgery, plastics are now used more subtly to strengthen materials.

At the same time the aim is to make things look much less 'plasticky'. In this programme, Richard Hollingham looks at the art and science of the plastic aircraft - and the skills involved in making hi-tech plastics. He investigates the cutting-edge of material science and the search for new materials and replacements for hydrocarbons.

But there's also a downside to our story - there's a sequence in the film 'American Beauty' which features the image of a plastic bag being blown around by the wind. Depending on your perspective, it's either 'beautiful' or incredibly irritating. Nevertheless plastic bags, like most non-biodegradable plastics, have become an environmental curse. Richard Hollingham visits a plastics recycling plant to find out how these materials can stay out of landfill. It's perhaps ironic that Richard's grandfather wrote one of the first books on industrial recycling and suggested that, in the future, landfill sites will be mined for plastic.

We may seem to be drowning under mountains of plastic, but even now, only 4% of oil goes into making such materials. Look around your home and you see plastics everywhere, and not just in toys and packaging. From clothing to kitchens, from computers and cars to aerospace, plastics are with us to stay!

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
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