Plastics: Introduction and History

In this series on plastic, I’m going to cover the history of plastic, the environmental and health concerns associated with it, and explore in detail some specific uses of plastic that are particularly worrisome. I started this series with a post on microbeads in personal care products, so now we’re going to step back and look at plastic on a broader scale.

In our world today, I don’t think there is a single individual left who doesn’t own at least one item made from plastic. It’s literally everywhere, and its presence has become a source of significant environmental damage, health concerns, political contention, and has even instigated niche lifestyle philosophies.

This is a famous quote from the 1967 film The Graduate

While plastic is useful in some applications, our heavy reliance on it as a material has detrimental consequences. It also represents a deeper, more fundamental, problem in our society – our hyper-consumerist culture in which cheaply made crap is mass-produced, used, thrown out, and replaced. We consume SO much stuff, and the majority of it breaks quickly so we have to go out and buy more! Annie Leonard has an amazing video about this on her website The Story of Stuff, which I recommend everyone check out.

So, what is plastic?

Technically, plastic is any polymer material. Without going into too much chemistry here, these polymers are long chains of carbon atoms, sometimes with attached oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur. Cellulose is a naturally occurring polymer. Plastic can be made from renewable materials, but most commonly, it’s made from petroleum or coal.

There are many different categories of plastics depending on their shape, form, and function. As a result, some plastics take more energy to make, are harder to reuse or recycle, and require more petrochemicals in their production than others. PET, a plastic used for water bottles or food containers among other products, can be recycled to some degree, whereas soft and pliable PVC (polyvinyl chloride) contains higher levels of toxic chemicals that can contaminate the recycling stream. For more information about the use, recyclability, and toxicity of different plastic types, visit the website Life Without Plastic.

History of Plastic

History fact: In the United States, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first commercial synthetic polymer in 1869 as a replacement for ivory by building upon previous work involving chemically treated cellulose from cotton fibers.

The late 1800s and early 1900s marked the dawn of the age of plastic. Polymers from natural substances were the first step, but in 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, an entirely synthetic plastic from coal tar derivatives and formaldehyde. Bakelite was heat resistant and could be molded into different shapes, making it extremely versatile; radios, phones, kitchen appliances, and even children’s toys started being made from Bakelite.

DuPont and Dow are two companies still around today that led the way in expanding plastic production throughout the 1920s and 1930s. DuPont introduced Styrofoam and nylon stockings, two unique applications beyond what Bakelite could do as a rigid plastic..

Bakelite radio

Widespread use of plastic started during WWII with natural resources being expensive and scarce for both civilians and the military. Synthetic versions were created as cheaper and easier to produce alternatives. Popularity of plastic increased after the war, with new and cheaper products flooding the market. Many of the products first introduced were actually created specifically for the military, but since companies didn’t want to lose money, they found ways to market these products to the public. Saran wrap, for example, was originally used in a spray form application for military aircraft to protect their exteriors from the elements. Dow Chemical, the owner of Saran, obtained approval for their product to have contact with food and began marketing a solid version to consumers as a method of food storage. As we know, Saran wrap has been an extremely successful product and is a staple in almost every household.

While before the war, conservation and thriftiness was valued, the decades after ushered in a wave of hyper-consumerism in which spending and accumulating stuff became fashionable. And plastics offered individuals of lower and middle classes the ability to purchase affordable and seemingly high-end products. Partly manufactured demand through marketing and availability combined with actual consumer demand for these new products drove the accelerating plastics industry through the 1960s and onward.

Today, we use plastic to make and package millions of products and it’s almost impossible to avoid. Plastic is cheap, lightweight, and easy to produce. It is not, however, a sustainable material. My next post will address this issue, through examining the environmental and human health impacts of plastic.