A Brief History of Plastics

A Brief History of Plastics

This is the second piece of a collection of articles written for Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India dedicated to discussing plastic bans in India, all relating to the plastic announcement on October 2nd 2019. The collection aims to discuss the enforcement of policies, design and innovation of new ideas and important steps that have already taken place that will assist in transitioning the country toward a new, more sustainable system along with other areas that will be expanded upon on a weekly basis.


“Every day, India generates plastic waste that weighs as much as 150 large blue whales—the biggest animal known to exist,” (source) or if you prefer another visual, the equivalent of “9,000 Asian elephants or 86 Boeing 747 planes. To add to this over half of this comes from the main cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta” (source). How did it come to this, what was the development to this point? To find solutions to such a problem, it will be valuable to look back to where it all began.


Almost half of all plastic produced has been created since the year 2000, with 8.3- 9 billion tonnes created since the 1950s, which is equivalent to more than four Mount Everest’s worth of waste (source).


The word plastic originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped’, more recently it has become the name for a category of polymers, this word meaning ‘of many parts’ (source). The issue is that humans, over the last century or more, have learned how to design and create synthetic polymers, with the most plentiful being made from petroleum and other varieties of fossil fuels. These designs and creations have become incredibly useful, however it has caused humanity to become reliant on the material, which, due to its properties, is damaging to the environment (source). 


A synthetic polymer was first invented in 1869 as a substitute for ivory (caused in part due to a growing popularity in billiards), the creation was seen as a way to relieve people from social and economic constraints of resource scarcity worldwide (source). It provided an inexpensive alternative that became more and more available in a modernising society. By 1907 “a key breakthrough came… the first real synthetic, mass- produced plastic” (source), that was initially intended for wiring. Throughout the following few decades new designs and innovation led to new types of plastics being available to the market (source).


The Second World War brought plastics into their own. It became indispensable with observers noting that in “product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture” (source). 


For some time there was an all positive vision of the cheap, adaptable material, yet, by the 1960s there were reports of plastic in the ocean and concerns over pollution as a whole (source). By the 1970s in the USA there were growing worries over plastic pollution but the transition to cheap, single use, adaptable material saw many large companies lobby against bans that would affect their business (source). Notable examples of lobbyist movement in the USA, where the development of plastics was quite pronounced, were seen acutely in the late 1980’s, “we had never seen lobbyists like this before… The B.S. came in by the shovel- load” (source). Further, it has been recognised that:


“the plastics industry- from the chemical giants making the building blocks of plastic to companies using the packaging to sell their products has been waging that war (against banning plastic) for more than 30 years. It has pumped millions of dollars into pro plastic marketing… All this despite decades of repeated warnings about weak recycling markets and plastic pollution problems” (source).


From the early 2000’s, at the same time as almost half the amount of plastic ever produced has been created (noted above), reports became more prevalent about the extent of plastic pollution. “Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our oceans… Plastic debris can come in all shapes and sizes, (with) those that are less than five millimetres in length (called) ‘microplastics’” (source). Therefore the problem is multidimensional and despite repeated warnings over the decades the problem has yet to be resolved. “Globally, only nine per cent of the plastic is getting recycled, about 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent ends up in landfills, according to UNEP 2018 report. In India, differently to the world figures, about 60 per cent of plastics gets recycled as per estimates but most of it is downcycled, which means polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is not recycled to PET but to a low-value product” (source).


The problem is clear. The damage is occurring everyday. From such a simple innovation that was originally seen as creating a utopian option (source) for society it has expanded in use and types, it has become a multi layered item and single use commodity and it has become an addiction that will be a struggle to break. Conversations like those surrounding the October 2nd announcement will help, but it is only a single drop in an ocean full of pollution unless we, collectively, continue to learn more, educate others, design sustainable solutions and set the next step in history without plastic. If we don’t, the world will be damaged beyond repair due to our reliance on this ubiquitous material.