Polythene (PE) is the world’s most common plastic. Plastic bags, packaging cups, plates are all made from polyethylene plastic. Only carbonated beverage bottles use a different type of plastic because PE does not expand well.
Despite its ubiquity today, PE has an odd history. It was an accidental discovery by Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett of the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). The scientists worked on creating a polymer from ethylene, a plastic, by combining high heat and pressure.
Early experiments exploded, causing a literal mess. However, in one experiment oxygen leaked into the chamber and rather than exploding there was a pure white waxy powder.
Experimentation continued and, eventually, scientists figured out how to create PE in bulk.
WWII broke out and the new plastic became a state secret, used to insulate RADAR equipment. By reducing the weight of RADAR, Allies were able to make portable units light enough to be used on planes.
After the war, ICI commercialized PE plastic. However, buyers initially expressed little interest. PE-based products which were flimsier than Bakelite or natural materials. Until the introduction of the wildly popular Hula Hoop the general public gave PE-based products a thumbs-down.
Today, PE is everywhere. It is so common the plastic has become a major polluter filling landfills and floating around oceans in country-sized trash heaps.