Bioplastic: historical predecessors

• Around 1860, the US inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920) succeeded in producing the first thermoplastic from collodion wool (cellulose nitrate), nitric acid, sulphuric acid and camphor. It was given the name celluloid and was preceded by Parkesine, which was developed in 1856 but was not commercialised and was named after the English inventor Alexander Parkes (1813-1890). Such products as combs, spectacle frames, ballpoint pen cases, false teeth, billiard balls, toys and films (celluloid film) were produced from celluloid. It is a problematic material, however, because it suffers from weathering and is easily inflammable; when it is stored, the water content decreases, the nitro content increases and the material can ignite spontaneously. The production of celluloid base film was discontinued all over the world for this reason in 1951. Celluloid has been replaced to a greater and greater extent by polyethylene terephthalate (PET) since then. One of the last products that are still manufactured from celluloid today are table tennis balls..
• In 1897, Wilhelm Krische and Adolf Spitteler (1846-1940) developed a plastic made from the casein in milk and formaldehyde (condensation polymerisation) that was marketed as Galalith. Buttons, jewellery and – later on – insulation for electrical equipment as well were produced from this “milkstone” or “synthetic horn”. Due to the development of new, completely synthetic plastics, Galalith became less and less important after 1945. There was plenty of crude oil available at this time, whereas milk became a raw material that was in short supply. Galalith did not last particularly long either. The material quickly suffered from fatigue and began to disintegrate. Another disadvantage of this first bioplastic was that it lost its stability in the presence of moisture – it swelled in water.