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The Story of Plastic: How Plastic has Changed the World, and Where to Go from Here

The Story of Plastic: How Plastic has Changed the World, and Where to Go from Here

  • Adam Millett

A Plastic Planet

Plastic has become so ingrained in our everyday lives and the world around us that we don’t really give it a second thought. We barely even give it a first thought. We wake up in the morning to the buzzing alarm of a smartphone with plastic components encased in a plastic case, brush our teeth with a plastic toothbrush, eat food from plastic packaging, put on plastic clothing, and then head on out into what, in the last half-century or so, has become a world filled with plastic. Literally, a world filled with and choking on plastic.

But where did all this plastic come from? Why did we ever invent it in the first place? What damage is it doing to us and to nature? And what on Earth are we going to do about it?

We will attempt to answer those questions. But first, does anybody here know what the heck plastic actually is??? 

Plastic: Inspired by Nature? 

Although most of the plastic we use today has been cooked up in a lab from oil-based chemicals and scientific wizardry, the structures that give plastic its versatility are derived from nature.

It’s incredible that we can surround ourselves so abundantly with a material most of us barely know a thing about. What is plastic? Is it natural? Is it a material sent to us by aliens? What’s it made out of?

Plastic is a material consisting of any synthetic or semi-synthetic type of polymer. A polymer is ‘a large molecule made up of chains or rings of linked repeating subunits, which are called monomers. Silk, rubber, cellulose, keratin, collagen, and DNA are just some examples of natural polymers, and it is the polymer’s shape that gives plastic its ‘plasticity’.

Plastics can be made from pretty much any organic polymer, and the first synthetic plastics were made from plant cellulose, but today most plastic is made from petrochemicals, often with extra additives thrown in to give it some extra artificial spice.


The first synthetic plastic was made from plant cellulose, a natural polymer, seen under the microscope here. It is the distinct polymer shape seen in this image of long chains of subunits attached together that gives plastic it's 'plasticity'. A molecule structure found in nature.

So although most of the plastic we use today has been cooked up in a lab from oil-based chemicals and scientific wizardry, the structures that give plastic its versatility are derived from nature. Whether that’s a gift or a curse is really up to us.

Now that we know what plastic actually is, how about we find out why we decided to make the stuff in the first place? And when?

We Need to Save the Elephants! (Oh the Irony, or the Ivory?) 

Plastic Solves an Environmental Crisis?

Believe it or not, the main motivation for the creation of synthetic plastics was as a replacement for elephant ivory. Yes, that’s right. Plastic, this invincible substance that’s clogging up the oceans and the landfills and destroying natural habitats all over the world that just won’t go away was originally created as a way to ‘protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need.’


A truly magnificent creature, the elephant is in danger of going extinct these days, but it isn't the first time. Back in the mid-nineteenth century elephant populations were running low due to increasing demand for ivory, and so, an alternative material was needed. As a result, plastic was created! 

The very first human-made plastics were actually praised as a solution to various environmental issues and there were pamphlets which stated things like “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale (people used to use whale oil), so celluloid (first human-made plastic) has given the elephant, the tortoise and the coral insect a respite; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”

See all the way back in the 60s, nooooooo, not those 60s, back in the 1860s, before plastic was a thing, a lot of everyday items were made out of ivory. Combs, jewellery, cutlery handles, piano keys, and billiard balls to name a few. And just like what’s happening now with so many species around the world, the unstoppable human desire to consume was driving the elephants to extinction. Tortoises, coral insects, and a number of other species were getting a pretty raw deal too. 

Competition Time 

And so, in 1863, in an effort to save the elephants (more likely as a result of ivory prices going up as availability decreased, and for fear of running out of raw materials), a New York based billiard ball company called Phelan and Collander launched a competition to find a suitable replacement for ivory to make billiard balls. The prize money was $10,000, which was a whoooooole lot of money back then. 

This led a young inventor named John Wesley Hyatt to invent a substance he named ‘Celluloid’, patented in 1869. Derived from plant cellulose as mentioned above, this was the first human-made plastic, and although it didn’t win the competition as it had a propensity to explode upon collision, it was a truly revolutionary invention. This was the first time humans could create substances unbound by the limits of nature, and clearly, the world would never be the same again.

Unintended Consequences 

The very first human-made plastics were actually praised as a solution to various environmental issues

The painful irony that we managed to create a substance intended to help the natural world that ended up doing far more damage than good should not be lost on us as we search for solutions to our current environmental concerns. Sometimes the solutions with the best intentions can have unexpected, and very destructive consequences. We should probably think things through more thoroughly this time around!

But back to our story. What happened after celluloid??

The Material Utopia (How we used to think of plastic) 

By the 1930s, a plastic utopia of material abundance was foreseen, and plastic really was celebrated as a magical material that would bring wealth and prosperity to all.

Well obviously the story of plastic didn’t suddenly end with the invention of celluloid. Celluloid was a volatile material that had many limitations, and so, innovation persisted, and newer and more versatile plastics were created. If you fancy a detailed chronological list of every single type of plastic invented you can find that here, but for now we’re going to talk about ‘Bakelite’. 

Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrick Baekeland as a replacement for shellac (a material derived from the female lac beetle and used as an electrical insulator), was the first fully synthetic plastic, made entirely in the lab, and it was hailed by Time magazine as ‘the material of a thousand purposes’. Bakelite could be moulded into nearly any shape, and it was this material that really kicked off the plastic consumption boom that would eventually ‘consume’ the whole world! 

 
An advertisement for Bakelite plastic from 1938, hailing it as 'the material of infinite uses', and claiming that it could be used for 'an infinite variety of purposes'. Unfortunately, they neglected to include 'clogging up the landfills and the oceans, choking animals to death and spreading microplastics throughout the entire planet' as one of those infinite uses. But back in those times, people saw plastic as a solution to many of their problems, and the environmental consequences didn't really come into the equation. 

Bakelite was followed by plastics like Nylon, Cellophane and oil-based plastics, and the proliferation of these new, fancy, inexpensive substances made material wealth much more obtainable for the masses. Plastic was celebrated as something that haddemocratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class’, and just before World War II there was talk of ‘a world in which man, like a magician, makes what he wants for almost every need’.

So by the 1930s, a plastic utopia of material abundance was foreseen, and plastic really was celebrated as a magical material that would bring wealth and prosperity to all. It was a very seductive possibility. This was the very first material that allowed us humble human beings to manipulate nature in whatever way we saw fit. It allowed for an infinite number of completely new objects and devices to be created, in all shapes, sizes, and colours, and at very little cost. It made life easier and more enjoyable for regular people across the world, helped bridge the standard-of-living gap between rich and poor, and significantly, changed whole industries.  

Plastic Gets Recruited for Military Service

Plastic production in the US alone increased by 300% during World War II. Plastic was used for body armour, helmet lining, parachutes, ropes, mortar fuses, aircraft components, bazooka barrels, gun components and so many other things. Teflon, a type of plastic, was even an essential component of the atomic bomb. Of course plastic itself didn’t win the war, but it played an essential part, and as a result of plastic’s prominent position on the frontlines, plastic production and innovation sky-rocketed during these years. 

But what would the plastic companies do when the war was over and we didn’t need the plastic any more?

The Material Dystopia (So what went wrong?) 

Post War Plastic: A Boom in Production 

As was the case with many industries, the war had caused a massive boom in production and innovation, and once the war was over, the companies involved didn’t really fancy taking a hit on all those extra profits, so they had to create new markets for all this new technology. 

In the 50s and into the 60s, people were living in a plastic dream, and it seemed that the ‘plastic utopia’ people had talked about before the war had come to fruition after all.

And so, plastic was moulded into all sorts of different shapes and sizes. Mountains of new products, gadgets and gizmos were dreamed up, and elaborate marketing campaigns were carefully crafted. In the US in particular, where people had just gone through the great depression followed by World War II, business was booming, the economy was strong, and people had money to spend. 

After years of scarcity, people were sold on the convenience and the luxury lifestyles that plastic had to offer. LIFE magazine even published an article in 1955 titled ‘Throwaway Living’, which celebrated the convenience of disposable plastics and talked about all the time spent cleaning that would be saved. And we wonder where the idea of single-use-plastics came from! 

 
The title and image from a LIFE magazine article in 1955. The article was celebrating the convenience that disposable items, a lot of which were plastic, brought to everyday family life. In the image you can see a whole family throwing a ridiculous number of different items up in the air as if they're having a party. A 'throwaway' party. And we wonder how the whole 'single-use-plastic' idea ever gained popularity. When it first launched, it was embraced as a time-saving revelation. 

In the 50s and into the 60s, people were living in a plastic dream, and it seemed that the ‘plastic utopia’ people had talked about before the war had come to fruition after all. Well, as we know, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Turns out all that single-use-plastic doesn’t just disappear after you throw it away!

We Made a Big Mess - But what did we do about it?

Plastic was first found to be polluting the oceans in the 1960s and by the 70s and 80s people were really starting to get concerned. It began to dawn on people that the plastic they were using didn’t seem to be going away, and that some of it seemed to practically last forever! 

8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since 1950. Only 9% of it has been recycled.

With growing public concern over the mountains of plastic waste that were building up, instead of doing the sensible thing and ditching plastic production in favour of safer materials, the companies turned the blame on consumers. They insisted that the problem was to do with disposal, not production, and in the 1970s and 80s, the ‘Reduce-Reuse-Recycle’ campaigns were born. People were assured that they could keep consuming plastic, and as long as they placed their plastic trash in a separate bin after use, all would be right with the world. 


'The Crying Indian' commercial, released in 1971 by a not-for-profit organisation called 'Keeping America Beautiful', placed the blame for plastic pollution on the people as opposed to the companies who created the plastic. The commercial stated that "People started pollution, people can stop it'. As the Keeping America Beautiful organisation was founded by Coca Cola, Phillip-Morris, and various other consumer products companies who produced most of the plastic in the first place, it becomes clear that the campaign was designed merely to divert the blame from these companies and place it on the heads of the end consumers. Some pretty messed up stuff! 

We now know of course that these recycling initiatives were basically a hoax. The infrastructure required to actually recycle most of the plastic was never built, and although people thought their plastic trash was being recycled, most of it was either being burned, going to landfill, or being shipped overseas, in which case it usually ended up being dumped in the ocean. 

 
Instead of being recycled, quite a lot of plastic waste from 'western' countries is sent abroad in shipping containers to countries around the world, often to Asia. Unable to properly recycle the majority of this waste, recently, a number of Asian countries have started refusing the waste, and sending the shipping containers back. My goodness, what a great big irresponsible mess. 

You’ve probably already heard that crazy statistic that of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that has been produced since 1950, only 9% has been recycled. Pretty terrifying stuff.

See it turns out recycling was a great big plastic lie! But people didn’t really know that, so they went on using plastic anyway. So after making a great big plastic mess, and then being duped by a false solution, what did we do next? Well.

We Made an Even Bigger Mess

Over half of all the plastic that has ever existed was produced in the last 15 years

More and more people went on consuming more and more plastic like there was no tomorrow, safe in the knowledge that it was all being ‘recycled’, right up until the point where we realised that there might actually be no tomorrow and now we’ve all started to panic. 

In the last few decades, the plastic mess has just gotten bigger and bigger. Over half of all the plastic that has ever existed was produced in the last 15 years, and it’s clear that plastic production has been speeding up as populations and therefore demand, has increased. 

Plastic toothbrushes in the US alone add 23 million kilograms of waste to landfills every year. That's the estimated weight of 1 billion toothbrushes. 

So it's clear that our plastic use has gotten out of control, but has it brought us some benefits as well? 

How Plastic has Improved our Lives?

We can’t deny that plastics have improved our lives in multiple ways. There have been benefits, as well as the obvious drawbacks. 

 
The disposable plastic syringe, a device that has saved countless lives over the years. 

Plastic has helped to save lives through the production of various medical devices, disposable syringes, artificial organs, and anti-malarial mosquito nets. Wind turbines and solar panels often require plastic components due to their durability and low cost, and plastic has also helped us tackle food-related bacteria by providing superior packaging. Computers, smartphones, televisions, tablets, most technological devices, all depend on plastic in one way or another to be functional and affordable, and it’s very difficult to imagine our modern society functioning without these things.

So it seems clear that an ultra-versatile, super-affordable material like plastic is essential if our modern way of living is to continue. But what about all the downsides? 

How Plastic has Damaged the World

Well where do we even start with the downsides? Plastic pollution is visible everywhere. We see it building up in the landfills, we see it in the shipping containers piled up high at docks around the world. We see it in the oceans. We hear about ‘the great pacific garbage patch’, a collection of rubbish in the North Pacific Ocean reported to be roughly three times the size of France for goodness sake! We see photos of animals choking on plastic and dead animals with stomachs filled with plastic. The visible damage plastic has done to the world around us is truly shocking, but it doesn’t even stop there.

 
The 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is a stretch of rubbish in the pacific ocean, consisting mainly of plastic, which in total is over three times the size of France. 

See plastic never really goes away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as ‘microplastics’. These are tiny little pieces of plastic that we can’t even see and they are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. They’ve been found in the deepest parts of the oceans and on top of mountains. They’ve been found in our food and our water supplies around the world. They are even present in the very air we breathe. When we talk about a ‘plastic planet’, in today’s world, it is very much in a literal sense. 

 
This is just one of an infinite number of images that illustrates the kinds of horrors plastic pollution is doing to this great beautiful earth of ours. It really is disgusting, terrifying stuff. 

So where are we now in the story of plastic? Well we’re in a great big plastic mess that’s where we are! But the story isn’t finished yet. So how can we go about changing it?

Changing the story: What can we do about it? 

Cleaning up the Mess

There are a lot of people out there who are already working very hard to change the course of this story.

A pretty good place to start if we want to change the course of this story is to begin cleaning up the mess we’ve made. And you know what? There are already multiple initiatives and technologies that are attempting to do just that, and here are some of the main ones: 

  • The Ocean Cleanup Project - This not-for-profit organisation founded in the Netherlands has developed a range of incredible technologies designed to pick up trash in the rivers and oceans. These guys have an ambitious plan to clean up 90% of ocean plastic pollution, and they have been active for over a year. A really incredible, inspirational initiative. Click the hyperlink above to find out more, and the video below explains how the technology works. 

  • The #Breakfreefromplastic movement - This is a global movement of organisations working towards a future free from plastic pollution. Since 2016, nearly 1500 organisations from across the world have joined the movement, and they are all working hard to push for ‘massive reductions in single-use-plastic and lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.’ This movement wants to change government policies to work towards a plastic-free planet, and not towards ‘ the demands of elites and corporations’. Again, what a wonderful initiative this is, and click the hyperlink above to learn more about it! 
  • 4Ocean - This is a company that sells bracelets from recycled materials. They pledge to pull a pound of trash from the ocean for every bracelet sold, and they use their profits to scale up cleaning operations, make donations to ocean-related non-profits, and ‘build an organisational infrastructure to support future growth’. Since 2017, they have collected over 7 million pounds of trash from the ocean. Incredible.

  • Turning plastic waste into low-carbon fuel - Using fossil fuels isn't ideal, but the truth is, it's going to take time before the world can completely leave them behind. Sufficient infrastructure needs to be put in place before renewable energy can completely take over, and until then, people around the world are going to be using fossil fuels. So imagine if we could create fuel with a 75% lower carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuels. Now imagine if we could produce this low-carbon fuel from plastic waste. Well that's exactly what a company called Renewology has managed to do, and they do it without emitting any toxic chemicals at all. Using this low-carbon fuel as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels while the world transitions to renewable energy will allow us to reduce the amount of plastic waste going to landfill while also reducing our carbon emissions as well. A pretty decent 'win-win' all in all really! 
  • Mushrooms that ‘eat’ plastic - As well as all of these incredible movements and initiatives working to clean up the oceans and reform the way we make and use plastics, there have also been some promising discoveries regarding how we can actually break all this plastic down. Scientists have discovered strains of bacteria and also types of mushrooms that ‘eat’ plastic waste. In the case of the mushrooms, in controlled conditions, the ‘Pestalotiopsis microspora’ mushroom was able to entirely break down plastic waste in a number of months, and it’s possible that after doing so, the mushrooms might still be edible! So it turns out we might just be able to remove the ‘invincible’ plastic from our environment after all. 

From the examples above, it's clear there are a lot of people (and mushrooms) out there who are already working very hard to change the course of this story. These initiatives provide some real light and hope when it comes to cleaning up existing plastic pollution, but it’s no good cleaning up the mess if we’re just going to make another one is it? So how can we ensure that we don't cause any more pollution? 

Finding Alternative Materials

There is no single material that can replace plastic, so if we are to succeed in removing it from our daily lives, a combination of solutions will be needed

As we discussed above, plastic has become such an intrinsic part of our modern society we really can’t do without it. Or at least, we can’t do without the vast array of functions plastic provides. Sooooo if we want to kick our addiction to plastic for good, we’re going to have to find some replacement materials that work for the planet as well as for us. Luckily, we have already found and developed an array of different options. 

  • Bamboo - At VirtueBrush we make biodegradable toothbrushes from bamboo, but, harvested and produced in the right way, bamboo can also be used to sustainably produce clothes, jewellery, toys, furniture, eating utensils, and a whole host of other things that might normally require plastic. It can even be used to replace hardwood floors and as a robust, durable material in construction. The quest to replace plastic requires multiple solutions, and used in the correct way, bamboo can be a big part of the answer.

     
    Bamboo, the material we use to make the VirtueBrush, is a very versatile material, and if utilised correctly can become part of the solution to the plastic crisis. 

  • Avocado pits - Incredibly, there is actually a company called Biofase who make biodegradable cutlery and straws out of avocado pits. These pits would normally end up as food waste, but instead are being turned into disposable utensils that biodegrade naturally in a matter of months. 

  • Hemp - Hemp is a biodegradable substance which contains cellulose, something we’ve already seen can be turned into plastic. Hemp plastic is a versatile material and can be used to produce building products, fabrics, wood alternatives, paper alternatives, and even vehicle components. In combination with all these other wonderful materials, hemp can certainly be part of the overall plastic-banishing solution. 
  • Mushrooms - Mushrooms just keep cropping up here don’t they? Well not only can mushrooms help to break down plastic waste as we’ve seen above, but they can also be used as a replacement for packaging. There’s a company called Ecovative Design that grows mushrooms to create biodegradable packaging, skincare products, textiles, and even backpacks, shoes and clothes. Mushrooms have also been used to produce alternatives to plastic bags, plastic film, and rubber gloves, so their potential as an alternative to plastic is clear to see.

     
    Mushroom based packaging grown by Ecovative Design.

      So already, there are plenty of materials out there that can do some of the jobs plastic does. As well as the materials mentioned above, seaweed, banana skins, cactus leaves, and all sorts of other ‘bioplastics’ have shown great promise in their potential to replace plastic in one way or another. 

      There is no single material that can replace plastic, so if we are to succeed in removing it from our daily lives, a combination of the above solutions and many more solutions on top of that will be needed. Unless? 

      Competition Time Again?

      Coca Cola were recently named as the biggest plastic polluters in the world for the second year running

      Just like what happened back in 1863 when the billiard ball company launched a competition to find the ideal replacement for ivory, a competition which eventually led to the creation of plastic, what if we had another competition? A competition to find the ideal replacement for plastic!

      This new material would have to be one that can ‘take the pressure off nature’ as plastic did all those years ago, but also one that gives back to nature once it’s been discarded. It would then need to be mass-produced in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner. Sound impossible?

      How about we offer $10 Billion this time around to really get people’s attention? To get the brightest minds in the world focused on the problem? But who the heck is going to pay $10 Billion you say? Hmmm, well how about Coca Cola? Who were recently named as the biggest plastic polluters in the world for the second year running? In fairness, they probably could afford it. So maybe Coca Cola should pay to find a solution to this mess. Or maybe all of the big plastic producing companies?

       
      Coca Cola, the biggest plastic polluters in the world for the second year running. An infamous logo.

      For the moment we will have to go with the multiple solutions approach, which really can lead us out of this mess if we do it right. 

      But we need to hurry up. That's for sure. 

      Speaking of the big plastic producers though! Be warned! 

      Beware! The Oil Companies Want to Increase Plastic Production! 

      With demand for oil decreasing as renewable energy begins to take over, the big bad oil companies are starting to invest more in petrochemicals, as they reckon their future profits will be in plastic. So although plastic has already invaded the entire planet, these companies want to start producing even more of the stuff! I mean it’s honestly quite difficult to even try to comprehend this absolute madness sometimes.

      Fortunately, economic analysts are predicting that with recent crackdowns by governments on single-use-plastic, and reductions in consumer demand for plastic, the petrochemical industry will also soon become unprofitable, meaning the oil companies attempts to start producing even more plastic could be doomed to fail. Fingers crossed.

      Although plastic has already invaded the entire planet, the oil companies want to start producing even more of the stuff!

      And so it seems these companies might finally be running out of ways to destroy this beautiful planet of ours, as people and governments start to wake up, and environmentally-friendly solutions become more financially attractive. 

      But what can we all do to make sure these companies do not succeed, and that the story of plastic has a happy ending? 

      The Story of Plastic: How We Can Write a Happy Ending  

      Whatever solutions we do eventually use to overcome the problems of today, we must beware of the unintended consequences involved

      Plastic made the ‘consumer boom’ possible, and has improved the world in multiple ways, but the incessant drive for consumption it created has left us literally living on a plastic planet. It’s been reported that with current trends, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. 

      Well that is not the kind of end to this story we want. We want a happy ending, and the examples of initiatives, alternative materials, and technologies given above offer great hope that we can move on from plastic with our planet and our dignity still intact.

      We have already seen how a recent refusal by people and governments to consume plastic may have halted oil company plans to increase plastic production, and if we continue with our efforts to avoid unnecessary plastic consumption we can really start to make a huge difference.

      As human beings we can make the choice to consume less plastic, we can put pressure on our governments to further regulate plastic production. We can start learning about and supporting all the wonderful movements and initiatives that are leading the charge in the war on plastic. 

      We can choose to buy products made from biodegradable materials instead of plastic ones, bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic toothbrushes, and in some cases, we can choose to go without and not buy or use plastic products. Consumer power is a real thing now and it can make a big difference when companies respond with alternatives.  

      This horrifying video illustrates with stunning animations the damage plastic is doing to our world, but it also offers some solutions. We, as people, have the power to change the course of this story, but we must act now. 

      But one thing’s for sure; whatever solutions we do use to overcome the problems of today, we must beware of the unintended consequences involved. 

      The story of plastic began as an effort to ‘take the pressure off’ our environment, but went on to do more harm than good. 

      In our current effort to ‘take the plastic off’ our environment, we must not make the same mistake again. 

       

      This article was created by VirtueBrush in cooperation with Adam Millett of Word Chameleon.  

      About the Author
      Adam Millett

      Adam Millett is a freelance writer for hire with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help businesses tell their sustainability stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.

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