The History of Plastic: Where It Came From and How It Became a Problem

The History of Plastic: Where It Came From and How It Became a Problem

Plastic doesn’t paint a pretty picture. More than 300 million tons of plastic are made every year throughout the world. 14 million tons end up in the ocean, killing plants and marine life.

You use plastic without thinking or knowing about it. But if you were born 150 years ago, that might not have been the case. To understand why plastic pollution is the way it is, you need to understand the history of plastic. 

Who invented plastic? When did plastic pollution begin, and what is the state of pollution now?
Finding the answer to these questions can be part of the solution. Here is a quick guide to the history of plastic’s inception.

The Inception of Plastic

Alexander Parkes was a metallurgist living in England in the mid-19th century. In 1856, Parkes patented Parkesine, the first plastic made from nitrocellulose. 

However, the process of producing Parkesine was very expensive, so it was never used for popular consumption. Parkes did create combs, knife handles, and medallions made of Parkesine and put them on public display. 

This brought Parkesine to the attention of manufacturers and inventors, including John Wesley Hyatt. In 1869, Hyatt patented a production method that would produce Parkesine at low prices. His method allowed manufacturers to shape the plastic in different ways and mimic substances like ivory and linen.

Hyatt was not alone in his innovations. Daniel Spill created Xylonite, a plastic that was very similar to celluloid. Spill sued Hyatt for intellectual property violations, but a judge allowed manufacturers to make both plastics. 

Celluloid and Xylonite became popular substances almost immediately. Manufacturers started making numerous products with them, including sunglasses and photographic films. 

The Early 20th Century

Celluloid and Xylonite were good, but not great. They melted when they were heated, limiting their commercial appeal. 

In 1907, Dr. Leo Baekeland created Bakelite. Bakelite was a thermoset plastic that did not melt when heated. 

This allowed electric manufacturers to use it in their products. Bakelite was also used to make cameras, telephones, and radios.  

Chemical companies started seeing the lucrative value of plastics. ExxonMobil, DuPont, and other companies formed alliances to make fossil fuels and chemicals for plastic production.

Each of these companies also started experimenting with other ways to make plastic. Imperial Chemical Industries produced polyethylene in 1933. The plastic was strong and flexible, and it could withstand heat.  

During the 1930s, DuPont scientists invented Nylon and Teflon. Nylon stockings became popular amongst women and Teflon was used for kitchen products.

Movement Toward the Mainstream

World War II inspired a spike in plastic production. The British military relied on polyethylene to make radar cables and airplanes. The American military used nylon for parachutes, ropes, and uniforms.

The end of the war did not end the spike. Furniture companies started putting plastics in chairs and fabrics. Car manufacturers made windows and tires out of plastic, replacing glass and rubber. Manufacturers started making plastic bottles in 1947. However, the process did not become popular until companies started using polyethylene, which was cheaper than celluloid and other plastics.  

Sten Gustaf Thulin invented a way of making a simple bag out of one sheet of plastic. He received a patent for it in 1965, and plastic shopping bags began being used throughout the world.In 1974, Nathaniel Wyeth patented a new plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET was lighter than glass, yet hard to break or warp, even under high pressure. Soft drink companies began making PET bottles for their sodas because PET would resist the pressure of carbonation.

The Rise of Plastic Pollution

The inventions of plastic bottles and bags started the history of plastic pollution. Many consumers weren’t aware of how to recycle or reuse their bottles and bags. They threw them away, filling landfills with plastic.

As landfills filled up, plastic objects began landing in waterways. In the late 1960s, oceanic researchers noticed plastic litter in rivers and oceans. Birds started eating bottles while seals and fish became trapped in bags and nets.  

This encouraged researchers to become activists. They began petitioning plastic companies to inform consumers about how to recycle plastic.

In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed an identification code. They broke plastics down into seven types and made labels for them. This allowed consumers to identify plastics and bring them to recycling facilities.

However, plastic pollution remains extremely prominent. A plastic bag can take decades, if not centuries, to degrade completely. Even if all people stopped using plastic, there would still be incredible pollution.  

Many cities and developing countries rely on plastic products. A 2018 study found that ten river systems carry 88-99% of the plastic that winds up in the ocean. All ten of these rivers run through developing countries in Asia and Africa.

Countries are taking steps to try to reduce plastic consumption. But the fossil fuel industry is doing little to help with the problem. The industry plans on turning fracked gas into plastic, which will increase plastic production by 40%.

A Brief History of Plastic

Plastic is everywhere, but that wasn’t always the case. Inventors came up with the first plastics in the late 1800s.

But plastic production was expensive until chemical and oil companies started making chemicals for plastics. Militaries needed plastic for products in World War II, and companies continued producing products for consumers, including furniture and clothing.  

The plastic bag and bottle were invented in the 1950s. They became popular in developed and developing countries alike, and they soon filled the world’s oceans.

However, companies are taking steps to reduce pollution. Dirtbags Bioplastics produces compostable bags. Browse our products today.

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