The History of Plastics

The History of Plastics

History Overview:

If you’ve ever bought a bag of chips, tried on a new sweater, or even borrowed a pen in class, you’ve used the everlasting versatile material known as plastic. All these actions might seem different, but the truth is, most of our livelihood consists of purchasing and trashing plastic because plastic is everywhere. 

To trace back to its origins, we need to travel back to around 1907 when Bakelite was invented as an alternative for an electric insulator (Science History Institute). The true boom however began around 1950, after the end of World War II when the demand for plastics decreased and the plastics industry needed another avenue to sell it’s ‘miracle material'. Cue the world’s obsession with a single-use lifestyle.

Plastics were able to overcome all the obstacles associated with natural materials like steel, paper, and glass, and as expected, its use in multiple sectors increased greatly because of its versatility. The catch though, comes in its disposal. Unfortunately, this “miracle material” is extremely harmful to our environment. Its durability (although great for laptop keyboards and water bottles) is built from fibers that are basically impossible to break down naturally, and as a result, accumulate in the natural environment. Further affecting the environment, the building blocks of plastic (ethylene and propylene) are derived from fossil fuels, creating an extremely carbon-intensive extraction and production process, and therefore, adding to the rate of climate change on this planet. 

The Role of Plastic Today: 

Plastics exist in several areas of our lives today. The most prevalent, however, comes in the form of packaging, where materials are made to be used once and then thrown away. When looking at a linear economy, single-use products need to be flexible and durable, only long enough to serve their short-lived purpose. Consumers are encouraged to properly dispose of these plastics, whether that means in the landfill or in the associated recycling bin, but many times, it’s not that simple. In a way, the plastic pollution problem is put into the hands of the consumer while corporations that produce the packaging are rarely held responsible to provide proper care for end-of-life disposal in the linear economy. 

Less than a decade ago, some of the world’s top industrial ecologists and researchers observed a gap in our knowledge when it comes to the end-of-life fate of plastic. After performing the “first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured” (Geyer et al), results were found which provided some insight into where plastic is really ending up on our planet. 

As far as statistics goes, the researchers found that “as of 2015, approximately 6,300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste had been generated” and of that waste produced, only “around 9%... had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment” (Geyer).

Although companies rely on pushing the consumer to recycle the plastics they create, it is evident that recycling of these materials is not even creating a dent in the overall waste created through plastic production. 

The Problem with Recycling:

Recycling, in theory, seems feasible, but there are fundamental issues associated with it. The first issue comes from the plastic quality which degrades each time it is forced to be repurposed and melted. This degradation of the material, in turn, still requires plastic to be disposed of and unable to be broken down naturally in the environment. This results in the fact that plastic can really only be recycled once or twice before its official end-of-life in the economy. In order for recycling to make sense from a carbon emissions standpoint, it needs to displace the primary production of plastic, which has not happened historically, as virgin plastic production only continues to increase. 

Besides recycling, plastic has been disposed of through incineration or discarded into managed systems. Incineration, most of the time, causes more problems than just throwing the plastic into the landfill because of air pollution which disrupts climate processes as well as exacerbates human health issues. Disposal, although may be controlled, requires space and, therefore, land use, since plastic does not biodegrade and can last in the environment anywhere from 400-1000 years. 

What Can You Do:

All in all, the answer is not to demonize plastic (it’s actually really useful in some cases like construction i.e. PVC pipes!). However, as consumers we need to think more critically about what we’re buying, what we’re allowing to come into contact with our food and ourselves. As consumers we must hold companies accountable to opt for better forms of packaging. Ones that don’t make humans and the earth sick. At Sun & Swell we are huge proponents of progress over perfection. It can be hard to avoid plastic completely, but are there areas where you could make progress? If you have access to a farmer’s, make it a goal to get to it once a week and bring your own bags. If you need to grab packaging foods, opt for some that come in compostable, plastic-free packaging.

We’ve compiled some blogs and resources that are a good place to start out on your zero waste journey! We know it can be overwhelming and we are here on the journey with you.


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