How Plastic was Crucial to the War Effort

Solent Plastics we will be joining the nation to remember those who gave their lives to protect the freedom of future generations. Lest we forget.

It's not something you would think of automatically - but did you know that plastic was crucial to the war effort during World War II? Historians describe the 1939-45 war as the era when plastics "came of age" - as it necessitated a massive expansion of the industry to meet the increased demands.

The Allies' industrial might was a key factor to victory, as the need to conserve natural resources meant the production of synthetic materials became a priority. The various types of plastic all played their role in the war effort - and what's more, it was inexpensive, at a time when the nations involved in the conflict were cash-strapped.

An article in Time magazine reported that because of the war, plastic had been turned to new uses - demonstrating its adaptability, time and time again. In the United States, plastic production increased by 300% during World War II.


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Wartime plastic use

Many products vital to the war effort used plastic to ensure they stayed in production. Nylon had been invented in 1935, by American chemist Wallace Carothers. While it was famous for being made into stockings or "nylons", it had a much more important function. It was used for ropes, parachutes, helmet liners, body armour and more.

Another type of plastic, Plexiglas, was used as an alternative to glass to make aircraft windows. Aeroplane cockpits were made of Perspex and polythene was used to insulate the radar. Plastic wrap was used to cover guns during shipping, while acrylic sheets were moulded into noses for bombers and canopies for fighter planes.

The military also used nylon for gearing wheels in vehicles and plastic also produced synthetic rubber to manufacture tyres. It became commonly known as the “material of a thousand uses”.

Manufacturers unite

The different plastics, including cellulosic, nylon, acrylic, polyethylene and phenolic, became valuable materials. The war effort required a massive increase in production and the machine builders, material manufacturers, mould-makers and processors worked flat out to meet the demand.

In February 1942, a group of leading US plastic manufacturers set up the Society of Plastics Sales Engineers (which later became the Society for Plastics Engineers) to promote the development of plastic standards during the war years. The aim was to keep standards high and ensure all manufacturers had the relevant technical information when they were involved in producing plastic for the military.

Post-war plastics

Even after the war ended in 1945, plastic had established itself as a useful and versatile material. Production continued to remain buoyant as a result. People who had experienced the austerity of the war were ready to spend again - and much of what they bought was made of plastic.

It continued to challenge traditional materials and took the place of steel in cars, paper in packaging and wood in furniture. It was viewed as an inexpensive, sanitary substance that could be shaped for various uses.

Plastic was also adapted to make jewellery. As a high-quality version of acrylic plastic resin, first made by DuPont in 1937, Lucite was mainly used in windows, interior design and furniture design, thanks to its transparency, strength and flexibility. It's also resistant to UV rays, water and wind.

After being used in the manufacture of windows during World War II, its versatility led to its use for jewellery in the post-war years. Providing a protective coating and safety bond for glass, it was massively popular in the late 1940s and '50s to make costume jewellery, as it was cheap to produce and chemically stable.

In the 21st century, plastics remain important to modern life, as they have made possible the development of items such as computers and mobile phones, while also creating important advances in modern medical care.

People all over the world are preparing to remember those brave men and women who lost their lives during World War II and other conflicts. Services will take place on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November, to commemorate their bravery. We will remember them.