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History of Plastics in New Zealand

It all began with a cow... The first plastics were developed in 1862, but a later invention really got the New Zealand plastic industry started. A German inventor Adolph Spittelor discovered a dairy product named casein in the 1890s. In the early 1900s New Zealand was already a major dairy producer, manufacturing butter and cheese for the world. This meant there was an abundance of skim milk and curds, which apart from being used for pig feed, was often thrown out. As far as we know the first casein was produced in a Rapanui factory near Wanganui in 1912. Taranaki dairy representatives had earlier visited England to look at the skim milk waste problem and came up with casein as the solution. By 1914, 22 dairy factories were making casein in Taranaki and the Waikato. The last of these was closed in 1945. Casein was used in England to produce: glues, pens, knife handles, and buttons.

Plastics TimeLine

A brief outline of plastics development in the world and in New Zealand.

1862 Alexander Parkes developed "Parkesine" - cellulose nitrate.
1907 Dr Leo Baekeland developed "Bakelite" - phenol formaldehyde.
1912 First casein factory opened in Ranganui.
1920 Hermann Staudinger developed the theory of "polymers".
1926 Bunting & Co Brushmakers of Christchurch import celluloid & casein plastic sheets for hair & clothes brushes. Bakelite sheets were imported to cut and drill for radio receivers.
1930s Low density polyethylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride commercially developed.
1932 Andersons Ltd engineers in Christchurch bought a hydraulic press to mould imported bakelite. One of the first orders was for 5,000 telephone earpieces for the Post and Telegraph Department.
1936 H C Urlwin Ltd in Christchurch started moulding electric iron connectors and flush switch parts. Buttons (NZ) Ltd began producing cast resin, casein, and compressed moulded buttons in addition to the wooden and pearl types already being made.
1936 H C Urlwin Ltd started making coloured plastic tableware and picnic sets. Fears Brush Company started producing plastic toothbrush handles in Auckland.
1941 Optoplast Ltd was established in Wellington producing plastic bullet tips under contract from the Munitions Controller.
1942 Up till 1943 most plastic mouldings were thermosets but thermoplastic moulding was increasingly being used. Plastic manufacturers, compression moulding machines and injection moulding machines continued to grow in numbers.
1944 Plastics Institute of New Zealand (PINZ) was formed. There were 10 founding member companies. The founding Chairman of the Plastics Institute was Mr Harry C. Urlwin, affectionately known as the "Father" of plastics in New Zealand.
1946 The Biro pen was invented.
1950s High density polyethylene, and polypropylene commercially developed.
1950 The first New Zealand plastic pipe and tube extruders started business.
1950 An electrical iron handle won the Industrial Award, a hand mirror the Fancy Goods Award, an egg tray the Household Award and Lawn Bowls the Sports Section in the first New Zealand design moulding competition.
1960s Global production reached over 4 million tonnes per annum.
1962 By 1962 the New Zealand industry had:
  • 86 Injection Moulding Machines
  • 101 Compression Moulding Machines
  • 52 Extrusion Machines
  • 21 Vacuum Forming Machines
In addition there were also an unknown number of forming and sheet processors, foam plants, fibreglass processing equipment and fabric coating plants.
1970s International production grew by around 3 million tonnes per annum until the early 1970s when the first oil crisis caused a drop in global annual production from 42 million to 38 million tonnes. Rapid growth resumed in the mid-seventies. Many innovations and products were developed over this period - one was the first plastic toilet - with cisterns, seats and fittings all made out of Polypropylene.
1980s In the mid 1980s, the plastics industry in New Zealand was a protected, mainly domestically focused sector. Its fortunes initially dropped away in the late 1980s as protection was removed, but recovered with the national economy after deregulation of the labour market, and the economic reforms in the period between 1986 and 1993.
1990s Considerable investment in new plant and technology took place from 1990, so that New Zealand's plastic products became competitive in both commodity and added value markets. The growth over the three years to 1994 was not matched in 1995, as some slowing down in economic growth occurred, coupled with an increase in the value of the New Zealand dollar. Production increased in 1996 and 1997. Continued increasing production rates, product innovation and rapidly developing technologies in resource and energy recovery. Global production now stands at about 110 million tonnes.
2000s National production now exceeds 200,000 tonnes each year. Global plastics production has now reached 155 million tonnes. With no local resin manufacturing capacity, the industry continues to take advantage of duty-free entry of raw materials from any part of the world. The small home market has meant for many processors the need to be able to engineer small production runs at short notice, and this experience is now being exploited in a number of areas for overseas customers. Given the small size of the domestic population base, the industry will continue to look overseas to expand its markets and is already succeeding in niche market areas.

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