Historians describe periods of time in terms of one element in society that had the greatest impact on peoples' lives, such as the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. According to some, we're currently in the middle of the Plastic Age.
The term "plastic" applies to a wide variety of manmade polymers, or long chains of molecules strung together [source: Polymer Science Learning Center]. Early versions of plastic were made from polymers that occur in nature like cellulose, giving rise to celluloid [source: American Chemical Society].
Plastic took a big leap forward in the early 20th century with the invention of Bakelite, the first material to be made entirely by man. The inventor, Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland, mixed phenol and formaldehyde, together and subjected them to heat and pressure. Seemingly overnight, this material was used in electronics, kitchen appliances, jewelry, toys, and countless other products [source: American Chemical Society].
Today, plastic is incorporated into so much of daily life – everything from toothbrushes to satellites and the computer you're using to read this article – that it's difficult to imagine a world without it. However, plastic does have a dark side. For example, research suggests that 95 percent of Americans have detectable amounts of a chemical called BPA in their blood [source: Health Journal]. The jury is still out regarding whether BPA poses a health risk, but the FDA has taken steps to reduce human exposure to it [source: FDA]. Plastics are also implicated in a number of environment disasters, including giant flotillas of plastic debris in the oceans. Nevertheless, plastic is such a part of life that ways will have to be found to curtail its harmful effects rather than eliminating it.