Plastics are the New Ivory

You're welcome, elephants

By Natasha Riverron; illustration by Crane Sarris


Look at all the things around you: your classroom tables, your phone case, even your clothing. How much of it is made of plastic? Really. Look. At the beginning of the 20th century, the answer would have been “none,” because the first synthetic plastic didn’t come on the scene until 1907. Humankind seemed to be doing quite all right without this now ubiquitous material, but its invention actually saved the lives of many elephants due to the self-interest of pool ball manufacturers.

At the turn of the 20th century, you could hardly go about your day without using an object made of ivory. A smooth and durable material, it was used in everything from clothing buttons and piano keys to combs and dominoes. However, the game of pool was actually the biggest sap on the world supply of ivory. Pool, a popular type of billiards game, required a set of 16 balls, all made of solid ivory in quality sets. Billiard tables were extremely popular in the United States and Europe at the time. They still are, judging by their prevalence in basements, bars and student centers.

Elephants have always been the most abundant source of ivory. Men would venture into savage country to hunt down the huge, wrinkly creatures and hack their tusks off. Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. These Europeans ventured into the heart of a dark and wild country, looking for the precious material to bring back to civilization, which would earn a great deal of money and fuel the lifestyle of the upper class. If these men–whom we now would call poachers–were thorough, they wouldn’t damage the tusk root, allowing the tusk to regrow from that point. The worst-case scenario was morbid at best. Because the tusks go up into elephant’s head, poachers would sometimes go in and dig it out at the root. Afterwards, the elephant was left tusk-less and could endure a slow, painful death due to hemorrhage.

The overwhelming demand for ivory made a dramatic dent in the number of elephant tusks (and elephants), leaving many people worried about what they would ever use as a replacement. Even the New York Times in 1867 noted that elephants were at risk of being “numbered with extinct species,” because of the overwhelming demand for ivory. This shortage was going to be a serious problem for manufacturers. So in the 1880s Phelan and Collender, the largest maker of billiard balls in the United States, offered $10,000 in gold to anyone who could come up with a synthetic substitute. With such a material, they would be free from the limitations of the elephant reproduction rate.

Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, answered the call with a combination of chemicals to manufacture the first synthetic plastic, which was aptly named Bakelite. Not only was this material a versatile substitute for ivory, but it also had the extra perks of resistance to heat and electricity conduction. Though not exactly necessary in the billiard hall, these qualities would soon prove valuable for the auto and electronics industries that were cropping up in the United States and would come to dominate the 20th century.

Plastic wasn’t just invented to hold our water and plague our landfills. It saved the billiard business and also happened to save a few elephants. It was at one time a hero for the natural world. It’s rather ironic considering the big environmental problem plastic poses today. In a way, plastic is the new ivory: the insatiable demand for ivory at the beginning of the 20th century and the insane amount of plastic that we produce and discard just as quickly are more similar than I would even like to admit to myself.

Is there a savior on the horizon? Is there a new and innovative material that will soothe our every ill? I eagerly await the solutions. Whether it’s a new combination of chemicals, a step toward using more natural materials or just a better way of dealing with discarded plastic, I have faith that we as a generation can be innovative as well as conscious of what we do to the world we inhabit. Although, if we look to history, it seems that people often only step up when they are financially motivated. I hope we can change that, and instead look for what the world needs. What else is our modern day ivory? Is it our rampant use of plastic or a social construct that we cling to? We are all in a position to ask ourselves what we can do to provide a solution and how we can provide the new plastic.