Plastics: Identification

In my last post, I addressed the seeming lack of literature that speaks to the preservation of video game hardware. But not all is lost! A second topic of the literature review is an investigation of the materials which make up the hardware, namely the plastics.

The first component of the preservation of plastics is the identification of the specific plastic that comprises the casing of the console. Certain plastics can be more ‘problematic’ than others and require different preservation and conservation methods. My first suggestion is to examine the console thoroughly and see if any identifying marks are visible. If a visual inspection is inconclusive, I was able to find two resources that might help us in the identification process.

The first resource, the Plastics Historical Society, was identified by Matt in his March post and comes to us through Tulane University Libraries. Among other resources, the Society provides a table that correlates dates of manufacture with probable plastics used in the manufacturing process. Our test collection, the Billy Cain Collection, contains consoles that range from the 2nd to the 6th generations of video games (around 1976 to 2005). Our collection’s hardware likely falls entirely within the category “1965 Onwards” in the table provided by the Plastics Historical Society. This category mentions 12 different types of plastic commonly used. Another resource I located allows even further refinement.

Vintage Computing and Gaming, founded in 2005 and written by Benj Edwards, is a “blog about computer, video game, and technology history.” On January 7th, 2007, Mr. Edwards published a great post titled “Why Super Nintendos Lose Their Color: Plastic Discoloration in Classic Machines.” During his investigation, Mr. Edwards reached out to a plastics expert at the University of Massachusetts, the late Dr. Rudolph D. Deanin, who said this: “The plastics most commonly used to make the structural cases for electronic equipment are polypropylene, impact styrene, and ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene].” Each of these three plastics are indeed among the 12 listed by the Plastics Historical Society. This purported commonality among console casings is fortunate because institutions with consoles from multiple decades can likely store the collections together in the same environment.

Now I know what you are asking: What if I really really want to know the identity of a particular plastic in my collection? Is there a way to identify the plastic without harming the artifact? Why, yes, yes there is. And this allows me to introduce my greatest find during the entire literature review: POPART – Preservation of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections.


This project was initiated in 2008 by the European Commission to develop a strategy for the preventive conservation and maintenance of modern material artefacts and most of their results were published in 2012. This is a fabulous resource for any cultural heritage institution that has plastic objects in its collections and I enthusiastically recommend investigating their site and resources. One priority for the group was finding techniques for the non-destructive identification/characterization of plastics.

One such technique is near-infrared (NIR) Spectroscopy, a spectroscopic method that uses the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to measure the absorption of materials. The resultant absorption spectra depend on the chemical composition of the samples. By comparing to a database of characterized materials, it is possible to identify positively the components in the hardware casing. Or at least have a really good guess!

Please check back next time for more on the preservation of plastics!

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