My Museum of Plastics: Having a Breakdown
By Libby Finney and Abby Moore
People collect and are enthused by plastic objects for many reasons but for us, one of the things which fascinates the most, is how plastics degrade and breakdown. We have found ourselves collecting items which show varying signs of breakdown and watch avidly to see how it might progress. It can be quite difficult to find plastics in perilous condition, often they have already been thrown away but we like to rescue them from the bin and give them a whole new lease of, if not life, then decay.
Ten years ago I was given a collection of already very degraded toothbrushes by someone who knew that I liked “bin fodder”. A real mish-mash of colours and styles mainly made by The Addis Company in the early – mid twentieth century. This particularly interested me as the invention of the mass produced toothbrush, made then from animal bone and bristles, has been credited to William Addis in 1780 and living in Hertford for many years I was very familiar with the striking 1935 design of the Addis factory building. Whilst these toothbrushes are not currently at home with me during the current lockdown and using the images here, which were taken on my phone around two years ago, I thought I’d pull together what I know about them and how they are breaking down over time.
What I have found out is that Celluloid toothbrushes possibly appeared in Woolworth’s as early as 1908 still using animal bristles in the head, but in the 1940’s nylon bristles were produced. The toothbrushes in the images here appear to be mainly nylon bristled, so 1940’s and later presumably, but there is a large headed one with black and white bristles which looks more likely to have animal bristles so could be earlier than the 1940’s. When I first brought them home, they were mainly structurally intact but showing variously sweating, discolouration, crazing and collectively smelling very acrid. I used an empty ice cream carton, possibly polystyrene, for storing the toothbrushes, having removed them from their bag. At that point the carton had a lid, so I sealed the toothbrushes in the carton and left it on a shelf in my garage for around 2 – 3 weeks. I then picked it up to move it only to find it was sticking slightly to the shelf. When I turned it over there were already several small holes in the base. I peeled the lid off and the smell was overpowering. Most of the plastics were covered in a greasy film, small pieces had become detached from some brushes, colours and opacity of the handles were changing and some were showing crazing and cracking. Over the following months, the holes in the container grew worse and the lid cracked, becoming so fragile it broke up and the acrid smell was so strong I had to seal everything in a polythene bag. The carton started to crack and yellowed in colour from the original pristine white and this can clearly be seen in the images.
Several years ago I had the chance to have them analysed when my manger took them to an event where they were able to establish what plastics were present. He returned with the information that the carton included cellulose acetate (CA), cellulose nitrate (CN) and casein plastics, but that was all the information I had. I have since also placed an AD-strip in the box, which turned yellow almost immediately (seen in the images here) indicating a very acidic environment. The problem was that the plastics by this time had started to stick together as their surfaces became disrupted and sticky and were contaminated with multiple pieces detached from other toothbrushes. However, it was thought that possibly the pink toothbrush was Casein.
For me, with this collection of toothbrushes, it’s not necessarily about knowing the actual plastics from which they are constructed. My fascination is with the rapidity of the breakdown and how aggressively the by-products have attacked the storage container and the toothbrushes themselves. It is with the fact that these individual objects have started to join and melt together, to become part of new composite pieces of plastic, becoming inextricably stuck together as they decay. It is with seeing how they are disintegrating and changing over time and how this can be seen, felt and smelt. I have had these toothbrushes for around 10 years now and I don’t know how much longer it will be until they become mere dust and their container is eroded away by their acidic by-products. These objects have / will soon cease to be toothbrushes by definition and will become something else. For some people they would have ceased to be of use or beauty, not in “good” condition, or to be collected, admired and have aesthetic value or usefulness attributed to them and in most eyes are only fit for the bin. But to me they are akin to a “living” object in its death throws and it is both beautiful and awesome to behold.
Abby’s phone chargers
I was recently sorting through a very untidy box of old chargers, adapters and obsolete electronic devices that have amassed over the years, the perfect stay-at-home task! As well as being reminded of how big iPods and SIM cards used to be, and finally finding that electric toothbrush charger missing since 2018, I was very interested to discover a couple of degraded plastic mobile phone chargers. Tangled in a ball of cables in otherwise good condition, one of the chargers appeared distinctly yellow and brittle with a noticeable rubbery smell, the other extremely sticky and covered in a layer of well-adhered dust. It instantly got me thinking about what plastic(s) I could be looking at, and once again fascinated by the varied, seemingly spontaneous and bold ways in which plastic materials remind us of their complexity and vulnerability.
It’s well known that vulcanised rubber was one of the earliest cable insulation materials widely used for domestic applications. In the first half of the twentieth century plasticised polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene (PE) provided alternatives, but the superior abrasion and weathering resistance properties of rubber have ensured its continued application in particularly challenging environments, such as, cables for power tools, pumps and generators. Many more plastics are now available for the insulation and sheathing of electrical and mains power cables, and many boast very specialist and desirable properties. Incredibly hardwearing thermoset plastics such as chlorosulfonated polyethylene (CSPE) have been adopted for use in industry due to their ability to withstand high temperatures, high voltages and significant physical force. Polychloroprene (PCP), a type of synthetic rubber, is used for cabling in exposed outdoor environments due to its impressive ability to withstand weathering.
Highly specialised formulations aside, due to their versatility and ease of manufacture, it’s PVC and PE that seem to be used for the construction of many of the electrical cables that we come across in our everyday lives. Of these two plastics, I think it’s likely that the black phone charger cable is made from PVC due to its sticky, oily coating- a well documented symptom of the migration of phthalate plasticisers, frequently used in the manufacture of plasticised PVC formulations.
The 10-year-old iPhone charger however is unlikely to be plasticised PVC due to Apple’s well publicised commitment to cease use of PVC and phthalates in the manufacture of its products from around 2010. Apple’s 2016 Environmental Responsibility Report broadly states that PVC and phthalates are replaced with ‘thermoplastic elastomers’…which could go some way to explaining the smell?! And as is the case for all plastic materials, it’s likely that many complex interactions are responsible for the other observed changes to this cable’s colour and flexibility. Like The Addis Company toothbrushes, it would be all too easy to label these phone chargers as useless, disfigured and fit for the bin, maybe even more so as they are so easy to replace.
In 2014 I remember reading Preserving Plastics- An Evolving Material, a Maturing Profession by Odile Madden and Tom Learner. At the time I felt both inspired and reassured, and one section in particular has continued to resonate:
“If we become more willing to make tough decisions about objects that just will not survive, resources can be reallocated for investigation and documentation of the technologies these objects represent and of their paths to failure.
Compiling these histories, tracking stability, and figuring out causes of and remedies for change are valuable contributions that our profession can make to the Plastic Age.”
So, far from being an ice cream tub full of fragmented toothbrushes and a pair of redundant phone chargers, these objects take on a new value. Their paths to failure are a rich resource, telling us about the early experimentation of mass produced semi-synthetic formulations, and of a time where social and environmental pressures were so great, technology giants had no choice but to innovate and brand new and ‘more responsible’ materials.
We don’t have to hang on to every piece of degraded plastic we come across, (Libby and I will give it a good go!) but we should strive to observe, track, document, question, and value degradation, and what it can teach us.
My Museum of Plastics: Who’s looking at you?
By Carla Flack, Sculpture Conservator, Tate
It feels like plastics are unavoidable in the house and we are all making great steps towards reducing our single use plastics in particular. However there are some items I welcome in to my home and it is still worth celebrating plastics and the incredible utility and design they have brought to society.
This is a hand mirror I bought from a flea market around 10 years ago. I bought it because I loved (and still love) plastic collectibles and this had a beautiful design and imitation tortoiseshell pattern. It is on ‘open display’ on top of a chest of drawers out of direct sun light with a semi-regular maintenance plan (it’s dusted occasionally). It measures 270 x 140 x 20mm. There are no manufacturer’s labels on the mirror at all and the design doesn’t necessarily point to one particular era. Can I identify what kind of plastic it is made from?
With very limited resources at home there are still a few things I can use to try and identify the type of polymer. First, I carried out some research and found and article on ‘The Characterization of Tortoiseshell and its Imitations’ (Hainschwang & Leggio, 2006) which stated that imitation tortoiseshell was initially made from cellulose nitrate (semi-synthetic) and then from cellulose acetate (semi-synthetic), casein formaldehyde (semi-synthetic), phenol formaldehyde (synthetic) or polyester (synthetic) when the flammability of cellulose nitrate made it unsellable. This gave an indication of the polymer type but I wouldn’t necessarily disregard other types at this point. I don’t think it can be casein as that was mainly used for small items such as buttons and knitting needles, therefore I discount it. I then tried to date the mirror but, due to the popularity of the tortoiseshell appearance, this was hard to determine and could have been from any time from the late 19th century to present day. I guess mine is mid-20th century but that is a pure guess! This left me with more practical identifying techniques.
First the appearance. As I said above there are no identifying or manufacture labels but there are flash lines on the base of the mirror and going all the way around the edge, showing it is a moulded polymer rather than natural tortoiseshell which would be heated and pressed in to shape (phew!). There is also a raised circle on the tip of the handle which would have been part of the mould. The plastic is semi-translucent brown with white and black swirled through it to give the tortoiseshell appearance. Looking closely at the back of the mirror it seems that there are two layers of the polymer which makes up a varied and more ‘natural’ appearance. Cellulose acetate, phenolic resins (such as phenol formaldehyde) and polyester resins are all injection moulded polymers.
The condition of the object is surface scratching overall giving a dullness to the otherwise high gloss. Also, I can see on the handle that the polymer has started to delaminate highlighting a creamy white colour. As this is where the mirror would be held I would suggest this has been caused by moisture, acids and dirt transferred from the hand. Both polyester resin and cellulose acetate are sensitive to hydrolysis.
At this point I decide to contact the Plastics Historical Society whose members are experts at identifying plastics to see if they can give me any information and pointers. In the mean time I persevere with my ‘at home tests’.
When you work with historic plastics you start to be familiar with the different ‘feels’ of various types, for example plasticised PVC has a flexible and oily surface texture that can be dented by a finger nail. My mirror is fairly light becoming weightier at the mirror end. The surface has a high gloss that has dulled with mechanical wear and tear. It doesn’t feel oily but feels hard and vaguely rough when rubbing the hand over. It cannot be dented by a finger nail which makes me discount PVC. The feel and sound when it is tapped is very ‘plasticky’ which makes me discount phenol formaldehyde (Bakelite) or phenolic resin as this has a more dull sound normally, and is much more dense and heavy then this plastic. Also – I have dropped this mirror many times and it has never cracked or broken whereas phenolics are very brittle.
I start to think that my mirror might be made of either polyester of cellulose acetate and at Tate (where I work), I might then use FTIR to confirm the identification…but….I don’t have that access in lockdown so I turned to smell instead! Some polymers have easily identifiable smells which we can use to pin point the type, for example cellulose acetate smells of vinegar; casein formaldehyde smells of burnt milk and polyester smells of acrylic. Unless the plastic is degrading a smell isn’t normally noticeable from an object, therefore I have to do something to the surface to make it smell. There are three main ways to ‘activate’ the smell – 1. By scratching the surface – 2. Immersing the item in hot water – 3. The hot pin test where I heat a metal pin on an open flame and then apply this to the polymer surface (NB: These are destructive tests and not something I would carry out on the Tate collection!). I tried each test on the handle including the hot pin test where the pin went in to the surface easily with no smoke and sadly no smell! But still I have a few more clues. The hot pin test may not have been completely successful as I might not have been able to get the pin hot enough. Also – I have hay fever at the moment which could have hampered my sense of smell!
While messing around in the kitchen, Colin Williamson had been in touch. He is a polymer specialist and member of the Plastics Historical Society. He has a particular interest in identifying plastics and is happy to help me with my mirror.
CW: ‘My instinct suggests that it is cellulose acetate and made by injection moulding but if I had it in my hands I would first of all look for a point on the rim where all the swirls originate. If there is one to be found (often by touch) then this would support my guess.
The material is transparent in some areas and there are not that many transparent plastics, cellulose acetate (CA), cellulose nitrate (CN), polystyrene, cast phenolic, pmma and polyester are possible but pmma and polyester (PS) would be 1950s at the earliest and the item does have an appearance of 1940s. The circle is a mould mark and suggests injection moulding. CN is not injection moulded and transparent PS has a metallic ring when knocked so these are mentally eliminated.’
With Colin’s incredibly helpful I response I looked at the mirror again and found a slightly raised bump at the tip of the handle which looked like an injection point. This confirmed that the item had been injection moulded. I responded to tell him about my hot pins test and also to ask whether cellulose acetate could have white mixed with it – in my mind I always think of CA being clear or brown. He said that CA can have almost any colour mixed in with it and asked further questions about the hot pin test – ‘you should have a softer surface with CA and easy penetration and acetic acid smell and, dependant on the temp, smoke. Polyester normally smells styrinic and is harder’. The soft surface seemed to tally with my test. He also mentioned that ‘the mould parting line going right round the item would not be probable with polyester, the resin is poured into a two part mould, there would be trapped bubbles…the evidence still points to CA, injection moulded on a plunger machine’.
So I seem to have been able to identify my mirror as cellulose acetate! This is really exciting as it probably means that it is older than I thought and also proves that there are ways to identify plastic objects when we don’t have access to scientific analysis. Of course I will also try to confirm the result when the lockdown is over but in the mean time I have a new appreciation for my mirror.
Many thanks to Colin Williamson for his guidance.
My Museum of Plastics
Investigating what things are made from at home during lockdown
By Jannicke Langfeldt
The Museums and conservation labs around the country are closed due to the Covid -19 pandemic and we are all getting used to this new world of working from home. Working from home does not come naturally to the conservators (like me) who are used to conserving, handling and investigating objects at work. Now we only have the objects in our homes and, at least in my case, there’s not as many and they are not as old as those at the Museum of London where I work. However, they can still be interesting. I decided to investigate a few of the modern materials around my home. I might learn something new about the materials they are made from and it will be fun to try and predict how they will deteriorate in the future (just like if they were in a museum collection). Here’s three of my favourites.
Jaffa Grapefruit knife
The Grapefruit knife was an essential kitchen item at home in the late 70’s and 80’s (back when we used to have a mountain of sugar heaped on the grapefruit- alas those times are gone). I suspect my mum got it free with the purchase of a bag of Jaffa grapefruit in the late 60’s.
It is the only object at home that is displaying signs of plastic deterioration. The handle is white, opaque, it has faint yellow discolouration and there are small cracks all over the surface. There’s nothing on the knife that suggests what the handle is made from.
I found some identical knives on the internet for sale: “Vintage”, “Mid Century”, made from “Bakelite” they said. I am not at all convinced this handle is Bakelite, Bakelite is very stable, and unlikely to deteriorate in this way. I think it is more likely to be Cellulose Nitrate (CN) or Cellulose acetate (CA). These two semi-synthetic polymers were extensively used for cutlery The plastic does not appear to have caused the metal to corrode, and does not have any droplets of acid on the surface, but as it is an item that sees occasional use any surface droplets is likely to have been washed away.
For arguments sake I will presume that the knife handle is Cellulose Acetate, I took a little sample and tried burning it, it flared up bright light yellow. Cellulose acetate is flammable (although not as much as Cellulose nitrate). Another thing that is against this being cellulose Nitrate is the date, if it’s from the 60’s it’s more likely to be Cellulose Acetate as this polymer was in common use for cutlery for longer. Cellulose Nitrate went out of favour earlier because of its flammability.
If it is cellulose nitrate or acetate it will deteriorate steadily. Polymer break-down has already started, and this will to carry on. Acidic vapours from the grapefruit knife may attack other things in my cutlery drawer, (this is maybe more the case in a Museum store cutlery drawer than in mine).
Since this is at home I welcome the fact that the handle will not last forever. It will break down into the materials it is made from: cellulose fibres, nitric acid, sulphuric acid, water, alcohol, colorants and fillers. I think it’s great that it does not break down into micro plastics and hangs around for much longer than necessary. If it had been part of the museum’s collection I might have felt differently.
Yes I’m made from Sugar Cup
I got this cup from the Science Museum shop about 5 years ago, intrigued by the claim that it was made from Sugar. One lovely thing about modern plastics is that they will often tell you what they are made from, which makes life so much easier when trying to conserve objects (at work) or dispose of objects (at home). Not that I will dispose of this cup as there is absolutely nothing wrong with it but we all have had that problem, haven’t we? Where to dispose of your plastics responsibly when something breaks?
The triangle at the base of the cup has a 7 in it, the number means “other”, but the manufacturer has helpfully indicated in big letters that it is in fact Poly Lactic Acid, PLA. This plastic is not made from petroleum, but, as the label indicates, it uses sugarcane as raw material.
In terms of being environmentally friendly it is made from a renewable resource which is great, but one might ask if it is responsible to use what could essentially have been food for anything else than feeding people.
PLA is a thermoplastic and can be recycled (melted) into another shape, but this is dependent on someone collecting a lot of this one material, and PLA is not commonly recycled in the UK, as there’s not enough of it in use. However collecting PLA cups for recycling can be successfully done in closed circuits, like festivals.
Another environmental claim on the base of the cup is that it is compostable, not all PLA is compostable, so this is a bonus. However most PLA needs a commercial composter, and will not necessarily deteriorate in my home composting bin.
So this cup is maybe not as environmentally friendly as it seems, but to me the main thing about the plastics in my home is that they are functional for a long time. The more times I use it the more environmentally friendly it is.
Melamine plate (Italian)
My third object is a Melamine plate, also helpfully identified by the manufacturers on the underside. I have had this plate (it is part of a set) for over 15 years, and it is in regular use, especially during the summer months. It was second hand when I got it in Italy, and is still in very good condition. It has accompanied me on many adventures.
Melamine became widely available after the Second World War and was used extensively for tableware, because of its seemingly unbreakable qualities. It is still in use for picnic ware, and was also used for ashtrays because of its non-flammable properties. It can be found in a wide variety of shapes and colours.
Melamine is a thermosetting resin, and cannot be recycled by melting it into a new plastic. It can be ground down into granules and used as a filler in other plastic products. Like PLA it has 7 as the resin identification code.
A melamine plate will last for a while, it is a very stable plastic in a museum collection (and home), although the colours may fade if exposed to high light levels, it may also be stained by foods, but this has not happened to mine yet.
In my spare time I often pick up rubbish. I spend a lot of time on and by the sea, and I worry about single use plastics, and their impact on marine life. At home I celebrate autocatalytic self destruction in plastics and biodegradability, but not so much in my work as a conservator. In a museum I’d prefer Melamine, but at home I’d like more Cellulose Acetate.
Some of the Web resources I found interesting to look at while planning to write this: