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How Fossil Fuels Helped A Chemist Launch The Plastic Industry


Recently our Planet Money team got into the oil business. They bought a hundred barrels of crude, and they sent it to a refinery. Refineries make it possible for oil to be made into all kinds of stuff, not just gasoline but also medicines and clothing. And here's a big one - plastic. Noel King and Jess Jiang have the story of the man who launched the modern plastics industry and how fossil fuels helped him do it.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: The man in question, Leo Baekeland, was a brilliant chemist. And like a lot of brilliant chemists, Leo was a little eccentric.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Carl Kauffman wrote a book about Leo. He says even when Leo wasn't in the lab, he thought like a chemist - like, at his family's summer home.

CARL KAUFFMAN: He would simply walk into the pool with his clothes on, get himself nicely soaking wet, walk out, cool off without ever putting on a swim suit or anything else. As he said, evaporation is a cooling process.

JIANG: Thinking like a chemist.

KAUFFMAN: Thinking like a chemist - exactly.

KING: Leo lived around the turn of the century when the U.S. was getting wired up with electricity. The problem was electricity started fires. You had plugs and sockets and wires, and they needed coding to keep sparks from flying. At the time, people used an all-natural substance made from bugs.

JIANG: Science writer Susan Frenkel says they were using a special bug.

SUSAN FRENKEL: The wonderful and beautiful lac beetle - the shellac beetle.

KING: Get it - not the guy-lac (ph) beetle, the she-lac (ph) beetle - shellac.

JIANG: But shellac wasn't cutting it. It was too rare.

FRENKEL: It took six months and 15,000 beetles to get a pound of this resin.

KING: Leo Baekeland set himself to the task of trying to create a replacement in his lab in upstate New York. We know this because Leo kept meticulous journals. He wrote about vacations he took and what he had for dinner and all the experiments he was doing.

JIANG: Carl read these journals, and he says Leo was mixing together different combinations of chemicals, and again and again he'd get a mess. Sometimes he made a spongy mass or useless gunk. And sometimes it was worse.

KAUFFMAN: If a reaction going on was hot enough, there was a good chance that as you poured this in, the fumes would burst into flame immediately like if you have a room full of propane and somebody throws a match in there - boom, you know? The gas is going to explode.

JIANG: So there were explosions.

KAUFFMAN: There were. Yeah, there were flash fires. Let's put it that way.

KING: After five years of combining chemicals and even creating a special oven to cook them in, Leo settled on a recipe, and the key ingredient was derived from fossil fuels. Leo used phenol. It's a waste product that you get from burning coal or from oil. One day he popped open his oven, and he'd made a hard, amber-colored material that had molded into the shape of the test tube.

JIANG: Leo named his creation Bakelite. What it was was the first ever plastic made in a laboratory, and Leo realized Bakelite could be made into anything - coating for electrical sockets and plugs, yes, but also car parts and toothbrushes and combs.

KAUFFMAN: And at the time, he wasn't just part of the plastics industry. He was the plastics industry.

KING: And in a lot of ways, life as we know it is possible because of plastic. Leo's discovery changed the world. Today we can afford phones and computers and medical devices because plastic is cheap, and it's everywhere.

JIANG: That also means there's a lot of plastic piling up in landfills and in the ocean. And so for many of us, our feelings about plastic are complicated. We tracked down a couple of Leo's great-grandkids like Roberta Roll. She's so proud of Leo's invention and also so torn about what it means for the environment.

ROBERTA ROLL: I try not to buy stuff in plastic. I don't buy my vegetables wrapped in plastic. You know, it's unavoidable sometimes. When you order something from Amazon, it all comes wrapped in plastic.

KING: And Leo's great-grandson told us sometimes when he's out for a drive, he'll stop the car. He'll get out, and he'll pick up plastic bags off the side of the road. Noel King...

JIANG: Jess Jiang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Jiang is the producer for NPR's international podcast, Rough Translation. Previously, Jess was a producer for Planet Money. In 2014, she won an Emmy for the team's T-shirt project. She followed the start of the t-shirt's journey, from cotton farms in Mississippi to factories in Indonesia. But her biggest prize has been getting to drive a forklift, back hoe, and a 35-ton digger for a story. Jess got her start in public radio at Studio 360—though, if you search hard enough, you can uncover a podcast she made back in college.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.