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A short history of plastic: the rise, the fall and the facts

A short history of plastic: the rise, the fall and the facts

When the age of plastics dawned, it promised big things. Durable, versatile and convenient, plastic was hailed as a miracle material that would transform our livesand it has in many ways. 

From pacemakers and asthma puffers to helmets, airbags and goggles, plastic has the power to save lives. The challenge is that it’s also harming animals, damaging our ecosystems and affecting our health. So, how on earth did we get here?

Beginning with the birth of Bakelite® to the rise of plastic bags, this timeline uncovers the key moments that turned plastic from a celebrated innovation to a source of environmental devastation. 

Heads up: this short(ish) story about plastic is a lot to digest, but so are microplastics. Read on to understand why untrashing the planet is mission-critical moving forward.

Single-use plastic: a timeline of decline

1800-1900s: The birth of Bakelite® and cellophane

Many moons ago, in 1872, a German chemist paved the way for single-use plastics by combining formaldehyde and phenol to create a plastic resin. Three decades later, a Belgian chemist perfected the resin to make Bakelite®, the first fully synthetic plastic. It was an instant hit, used to create everything from old-school telephones to Parker Pens, dominoes and poker chips. 

Soon after, a Swiss chemist created cellophane, one of the first plant-based bioplastics. Consumers fell hard for this crystal-clear packaging that kept everything fresh as a crunchy cucumber.

And, so began the Age of Plastics.

Dong Tai Road Antique Market In Shanghai China

1930s: The accidental discovery of polyethylene

Fast forward to the 30s, and the chemists were at it againthis time in England, where they stumbled across a white waxy substance while experimenting with high-pressure techniques. They dubbed it polyethylene.  

Five years after its discovery in 1933, the first polythene producta cream-coloured walking stickhit the market. Today, polyethylene is a staple in countless products, from food packaging and pipes to toys, water bottles and artificial hips.

1950s: When marketers went mad

Despite growing concerns from scientists, plastic consumption surged after the second world war. LIFE Magazine’s infamous 1955 article ‘Throwaway Living’ (no joke) glorified single-use plastics, encouraging a use-and-toss culture that persists today.  

To make matters worse, a plastic industry bigwig declared, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” His comment spurred the industry to focus on disposable products, causing a surge in consumption and the mess we’re in today.

A man, woman and child toss "disposable" items into the air, 1955.

Pictured here: humankind, breaking up with nature since 1955.

1960s: The arrival of the plastic bag

A Swede named Sten invented the plastic bag to reduce deforestation and save the planet. He designed them to be stronger and more durable than paper bags, so consumers could reuse them. Unfortunately, humanity missed the brief, and another not-so-fantastic plastic hit the market. If only Sten had owned a crystal ball.

By 1965, Celloplast had patented the T-shirt plastic bag, which quickly replaced reusable bags across Europe and the US.

A plastic shopping bagRita Hayworth in Paris

1970s: The boom starts to bust

The first polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottlemarketed as a cheaper alternative to glassarrived on the scene by the mid-70s. In the blink of an eye, glass packaging was tossed aside, and single-use plastic was everywhere, from cleaning spray to soda bottles.

By 1976, plastic was the most used material in the world. 

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam launched ‘Live Without Litter Week’Australia’s first national anti-litter campaign. The message was simple: “If, for one week, each of us can concentrate on litter prevention, then we can extend this consciousness to an all-year-round effort to keep our environment clean.“

1980s: The big dirty secret surfaces

Life in the 80s was all about big hair, leg warmers, neonand plastic. Plastic packaging and bags flooded supermarkets across the globe, and concerns about pollution escalated. 

In 1988, a US government agency published a scientific paper describing high concentrations of marine debris floating in the North Pacific Ocean. Two times the size of Texas and seventeen times the size of Tasmania, this mind-bending collection of ocean waste is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

2000s: The reality of our habits sinks in

By 2015, emissions from manufacturing plastic reached 213 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) globally. You'd need the emissions of around 41 million cars to produce the same amount of CO2 in a year!

In 2018, the world was shocked by images of a sperm whale in Spain that died after swallowing nearly 30 kilograms of marine trash, including plastics. 

Then, studies uncovered microplastics in drinking water samples from countries across the globe, highlighting the widespread impact of plastic pollution.

2020s: The problem becomes too big to ignore

In 2021, a report revealed that plastic from takeaway food and beverages dominated global litter, closely followed by fishing waste. 

In 2022, microplastics were found in human breast milk, raising concerns about toxicity and health implications for future generations. Since then, studies have found microplastics in human hearts and testicles. 

Around the same time, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thin plastic bags, prompting other countries to follow suit. Soon after, 175 countries voted to adopt the Global Plastics Treaty, in a bid to reduce consumption and phase out all unnecessary plastic. Cheers to that.

Then, Australia’s only soft plastic recycling program shut down.

Here’s what we know in 2024:

  • By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean (by weight) than fish.
  • Globally, we use over one million plastic bottles and more than one million plastic bags every minute.
  • 11 million metric tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each yearthat's enough to fill about one garbage truck per minute.
  • Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled globally, with Australia tracking only slightly better at 14%.
  • According to some studies, around 100,000 marine mammals die each year from ingesting ocean plastic.
  • Research estimates we consume over 3,000 microplastics each year from drinking water alone.

That’s a lot to take in. And it has to stop.

Is plastic really the problem?

Not exactly. As Mike Smith, Founder of Zero Co, puts it, "In many ways, plastic itself isn’t the problemit’s how we choose to use it that creates the issues we face today."  

After all, it’s an incredibly cheap and durable material designed to last hundreds (if not thousands) of years. “It was never meant to be used once and thrown away,” says Mike. We’ve got our relationship with plastic all wrong.

So, what are we doing about it?

At home, the Australian retail sector is on track to phase out single-use plastics by 2025, and the government has committed to the Net Zero Plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Around the world, plastic alternativeslike seaweed polymersare popping up, but we still haven’t invented a silver bullet capable of replacing plastic across industries.

At Zero Co, we’re here to help you refuse, reduce, refill and recycle plastic wherever you can. “The solution to the problem is to use as little plastic as possible, for as long as possible,” says Mike. “By making this your ethos, we can press pause on the cycle of waste while we clean up the mess we’ve made.”

Switch to Zero Co’s refillable home cleaning and personal care products, and let's untrash the planet. Together.

References:

  1. Bakelike Phones (Image)
  2. Cellophane (Image)
  3. Throwaway Living (Image)
  4. Plastic Bag (Image)
  5. Rita Hayworth (Image)
Published on Monday 1 July, 2024