Issue Date: September 9, 2013
From C&EN Archives: Plastics
In the 1950s, the field of polymers was where chemists and chemical companies were having the most impact on the lives of ordinary Americans, and C&EN chronicled it.
The Plastic Film Menace The American public learned in the late 1950s that plastics could be dangerous as well as helpful. On June 8, 1959, C&EN reported that 20 children—mostly infants—were smothered to death by polyethylene film during the first three months of 1959 alone. Unaware of the dangers of the new materials, adults were reusing dry-cleaning bags as mattress covers and pillowcases. Congress later passed a law requiring warning labels on plastic film. These labels are still in use today. Manufacturers also made films thicker and launched a public awareness campaign.
Plastic Popcorn C&EN nailed the simile when it explained expandable polystyrene (EPS) to readers on March 15, 1954. “Material comes in tiny hard beads impregnated with an undisclosed foaming agent that reacts on heating somewhat like the moisture within a kernel of popcorn,” the article stated when describing materials being developed by Koppers Industries. The author presciently noted that the material had better insulating properties than cork, glass fiber, and mineral wool. Insulation, whether in an attic or a coffee cup, is the dominant use of EPS today. However, EPS and polystyrene foam would become emblematic of the plastic waste problem by 1990, forcing McDonald’s to drop polystyrene foam from its packaging.
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