14 Jul A short history of plastic
Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year – most of it is thrown away after it has been used once. Plastic has become a part of our everyday lives, however, this wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, things were made to last, and very little was thrown away. Food and drinks came in bulk. Packaging and bottles could be reused or returned.
So when did plastic come into our lives and how did we develop the mentality to just throw things away
The first plastics imitated ivory and silk. “Parkesine”, named after his inventor, Alexander Parkes, was first presented in 1862. He made it from cellulose, an organic material that could be shaped when it was heated and retained upon cooling. A further developed version replaced ivory and tortoiseshell in billiard balls and combs, and was used in the film industry and photography.
In 1884 a chemist patented “Chardonnet silk”. The successor viscose now is a semisynthetic plastic made from chemically treated cellulose. This is cheaper than natural fiber, such as silk. These and other early plastics were made from natural raw materials. It would take another couple of decades before a completely synthetic plastic was developed. In 1907 the first plastic that contained no naturally occurring molecules called Bakelite was invented.
It was marketed as a good insulator with a durable and heat resistant material. Five years later polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC or vinyl, was patented. Until the middle of the 20th century, plastics occupied a relatively small market niche. The trigger for the mass spread of PVC was the discovery that it could be made from a waste product of the petrochemical industry.
Although it was increasingly known that PVC production harmed both environment and human health, the petrochemicals industry took advantage of the new possibilities to turn a waste product into profit. Alongside PVC, polyethylene has also gained acceptance by using it to make drink bottles, shopping bags and food containers. Polypropylene has similar properties, used for a range of everyday products such as packaging, child seats and pipes. Today PVC, polyethylene and polypropylene are the most widely used plastics in the world.
Things took off after World War II with PVC. Right after the war, plastic gained popular and became mainstream. However, people reused it and treated it carefully, as they did with other materials and types of packaging.At the time, the positive image of plastics contributed to the boom in their use. Plastics were seen as trendy, clean and modern. They squeezed out existing products and muscled their way into almost all areas of life. In the late 1950s, manufacturers welcomed the chance to save money and simplify their supply chains. In 1978, Coca-Cola introduced a single-use plastic PET bottle to replace its iconic glass one.
This shift symbolizes the beginning of a new era for consumer drinks. People believed that recycling would solve the growing problem of single-use plastics and by the end of the decade, almost all refillable soda and milk bottles had disappeared, replaced by the plastic throwaway. The throwaway lifestyle was a sign of modernity. As life got busier at the end of the 20th century, families (especially women) had less time for cooking, gardening or housework. Freezers and microwaves made it possible to switch to precooked convenience meals bought from the supermarket. This “convenience lifestyle” was only made possible by single-use plastic.
Such attitudes are also reflected in the core of popular culture, such as in sport, music events and in Hollywood. Single-use plastics have made their way onto screens of all sizes: college parties heave with plastic cutlery, and television heroes make their way to work grasping a cup of take-away coffee. Such images spread across the world. In poorer regions, plastic throwaway items are seen as prestigious and are used in mass. Corporations actively encourage and support such trends. In many developing countries consumer-product giants such as Proctor & Gamble supply their products such as shampoo, detergent and ketchup in small, sealed plastic envelopes.
The suppliers argue that this makes it possible for lower-income consumers to afford such products, but the result is an increase in trash. Such mini portions embody a drastic mismatch between the amount of packaging needed per unit of product, while at the same time boosting consumption. Without a functioning waste disposal system, they drown in a flood of plastic trash. Litter from convenience items has grown to become a massive problem in many cities even in the developing world, with being no way to dispose of them in an environmentally responsible way.
Between 1950 and 2017, 9,2 billion tons of plastic were produced. Less than ten percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. The throwaway mentality is still dominant, because it makes certain aspects of life seem easier. Plastic straws, single-use plastic bags, polystyrene plates and polypropylene utensils for takeaway foods are the material basis of daily life. The costs that are incurred by waste are not included in the price of the product.
However, if you have read this article, you are probably aware of the current plastic problem. YOU can make a better choice and integrate reducing, reusing and recycling in your lifestyle. We don´t need a handful of people doing that perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly. Together we can make a change – today!