Plastic is a catch-all term for the product made by turning a fossil fuel mixture into a solid structure. The raw materials come from fossil fuels, and many of the same vast companies that produce oil and gas also produce plastic, often in the same facilities. The story of plastic is the story of the fossil fuel industry – and the oil-fuelled boom in consumer culture that followed the second world war.
The first traces of plastic date back to the 19th century, where chemists and inventors were already making household objects such as combs from a brittle, early form of plastic, called Parkesine. This technique eventually evolved and the product was renamed celluloid, after the plant cellulose from which it was made.
Bakelite, which was invented in 1907, was the first modern plastic – a fully synthetic material based on crude oil or coal. It was initially used as an insulator for electrical wiring. Its near-limitless potential was soon recognized in advertising, where it was called the “material of a thousand uses”.
Over the next few decades, new varieties were developed and the public was fascinated with this infinitely malleable wonder material that science had created.
World War 2
What was initially a novelty was to become a truly indispensable material in World War 2. With shortages of natural materials and the enormous demands of the war effort, plastic’s potential to become nearly anything – using just “coal, water and air”, as the pioneering plastics chemist Victor Yarsley claimed in 1941 – made it vital to the state’s military machine.
Between 1939 and 1945, US plastic production more than tripled. The development of the petrochemical industry was the greatest single contributing factor in the growth of the plastics industry. Chemical and petroleum giants DuPont, Monsanto, Mobil and Exxon rapidly consolidated the market between them with the development of vast plastic production facilities.
By developing new plastic products – such as Dow’s Styrofoam in the 1940s, or Mobil’s wide range of plastic films used in packaging, these companies were effectively creating new markets for their oil and gas.
In the decades of meteoric economic growth that followed the war, plastic began the inexorable rise that would see it replace cotton, glass and cardboard as the material of choice for consumer products.
The Bic Ballpoint Pen: Marcel Bich, a French industrialist who had deep knowledge of the pen industry, bought out Biro’s patent in the early 1950s, a move that proved brilliant, because Bich’s company, Bic, was masterful at producing disposable devices at an incredibly low price point. More than any other company or device, Bic’s Cristal pen came to define the pen as an easily replaceable commodity, meaning that if there was a problem with the pen you were using, it was simply easier to get a hold of another pen than it would be to fix the pen that wasn’t working.
Around 4 tons of plastic has been created. This averages out to around 1.5kg of plastic for every person on earth. That could make around 136 half-liter water bottles.
In August 1955, LIFE magazine published an article with the now-vaguely-sinister, then-celebratory title, “Throwaway Living.”
Italian firm Montecatini begin large-scale commercial production of isotactic polypropylene.
Thin plastic wrapping displacing the paper and cloth protecting consumer goods and dry cleaning. By the end of the decade, DuPont reported more than a billion plastic sheets sold to retailers.
At the same time, plastic entered millions of homes in the form of latex paint and polystyrene insulation, vast improvements over pungent oil paint and expensive rockwool or wood fibre panels. Soon, plastic was everywhere – even outer space.
There is 5.8kg of plastic per person, enough for 527 water bottles.
First plastic credit card: American Express charge card, which required payments in full at the end of the month. PVC plastic soon replaced the cardboard or thin, paperlike celluloid used in its contemporaries.
There is 9kg of plastic per person, enough for 818 water bottles.
Disposible razor and cartridge razor was invented by American entertainer and inventor Paul Winchell.
There is 18.1kg of plastic per person, enough for 1,645 water bottles.
1965 – Chemist Stephanie Kwolek develops light, extremely resistive and durable plastic compound that is today known under the name of Kevlar. Today, this plastic is used by military and police in bullet resistive protective wear.
There is 24.9kg of plastic per person, enough for 2,263 water bottles.
In The Graduate, one of the top movies of 1968, Dustin Hoffman’s character was urged by an older acquaintance to make a career in plastics. Audiences cringed along with Hoffman at what they saw as misplaced enthusiasm for an industry that, rather than being full of possibilities, was a symbol of cheap conformity and superficiality.
There is 33.5kg of plastic per person, enough for 3,045 water bottles.
Bic brings lighters and razors to its’ lineup of ultra-cheap, disposable alternatives to expensive products.
There is 51kg of plastic per person, enough for 4,654 water bottles.
An organization called Pollution Probe was formed in 1969 by students and faculty at the University of Toronto and in 1971, members published a report stressing the need for recycling.
There is 59kg of plastic per person, enough for 5,363 water bottles.
The PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottle was created. Coke and Pepsi soon began replacing their glass bottles with plastic versions.
Plastic bottles take off for a variety of reasons – they don’t break, are easily re-sealable, lightweight and cheaper to produce.
There is 76kg of plastic per person, enough for 6,908 water bottles.
The Rubik’s cube is invented and patented in Hungary. Erno Rubik, a Hungarian architect, wanted a working model to help explain three-dimensional geometry.
There is 97kg of plastic per person, enough for 8,844 water bottles.
The world’s first curbside recycling program launches to 80,000 households of The Beaches neighbourhood of east Toronto.
There is 117kg of plastic per person, enough for 10,698 water bottles. The world is now producing more plastic per year than it has from 1907-1963 combined.
Polyester film stock replaces cellulose acetate for photographic film and computer tapes.
There is 152kg of plastic per person, enough for 13,871 water bottles.
The Dixie Bag Company, along with similar firms such as Houston Poly Bag and Capitol Poly, was instrumental in the manufacturing, marketing and perfecting of plastic bags in the 1980s. Kroger, a Cincinnati-based grocery chain, began to replace its paper shopping bags with plastic bags in 1982, and was soon followed by its rival, Safeway.
There is 179kg of plastic per person, enough for 15,107 water bottles.
A barge of trash from NYC takes an Atlantic Cruise, getting turned away by North Carolina, Belize, Bahamas and 5 other states before returning to Brooklyn. Harrelson refused to say how much the Mobro’s 6,000-mile voyage to nowhere had cost him. The price tag was believed to be nearly $1 million. The press focused America’s attention on the growing national problem of solid waste management, encouraged an expansion of recycling programs and brought pressure on Congress to the pass the 1990 Clean Air/Clean Water Act.
There is 246kg of plastic per person, enough for 22,379 water bottles.
First polymer bank notes issued in Australia.
There is 261kg of plastic per person, enough for 23,733 water bottles.
3D Printing begins. The world’s first stereolithographic apparatus (SLA) machine is created, which makes it possible to fabricate complex parts, layer by layer in a fraction of the time it would normally take. That same year, startup DTM produced the world’s first selective laser sintering (SLS) machine, which shoots a laser at a powder instead of a liquid.
There is 293kg of plastic per person, enough for 26,660 water bottles.
Patagonia, in partnership with R&D company Malden Mills, creates a fleece product made out of recycled polyester from PET bottles.
There is 345kg of plastic per person, enough for 31,342 water bottles.
“Barbie Girl” is released by the Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua. “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!”
There is 472kg of plastic per person, enough for 42,959 water bottles.
Cradle-to-Cradle is published by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The book urges designers to think about end-of-life of products, the materials and additives in those products and their impact on human health and ecosystems.
There is 552kg of plastic per person, enough for 50,222 water bottles.
The dawn of affordable open-source 3D printing. In 2005, Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap Project launched an open-source initiative to create a 3D printer that could basically build itself – or at least print most of its own parts. Suddenly, people everywhere have the power to create whatever they can dream up on their own. This new technology offers a glimpse of an exciting future where recycling and production can be combined into one close loop.
There is 640kg of plastic per person, enough for 58,176 water bottles.
The world starts to react to the looming threat of plastic. San Francisco becomes the first U.S. city to institute a plastic bag ban.
There is 703kg of plastic per person, enough for 63,957 water bottles.
A government study confirms that Bisphenol A, a chemical used to manufacture hard plastic bottles and the lining of baby-formula cans, may increase risks of early puberty, breast cancer, prostate issues and behavioral problems.
There is 737kg of plastic per person, enough for 67,057 water bottles.
Only 13% of one trillion single-use plastic bags produced are recycled; the rest are thrown away and end up in landfills, where their light weight and size allows them to spread into the atmosphere and around our environments.
There is 772kg of plastic per person, enough for 70,192 water bottles.
3D printing starts to reach the mainstream.
There is 836kg of plastic per person, enough for 76,010 water bottles.
Precious Plastic launches its first 4 small-scale plastic recycling machines to a community of local plastic craftspeople: the shredder, the extruder, the injection and the compression. Precious Plastic aims to create a community of small-scale plastic recycling facilities. All of their designs are open source, designed to be easily built, and can be freely used and improved by the community.
There is 907kg of plastic per person, enough for 82,428 water bottles.
The Netherlands becomes the first country to ban microbeads in cosmetics.
There is 943kg of plastic per person, enough for 85,764 water bottles.
600 Billion LEGO parts are produced.
There is 981kg of plastic per person, enough for 89,191 water bottles.
Taylor et al. prove that microplastics are already becoming integrated into deep-water organisms that live at depths between 300 and 1800 meters. This research proves that plastic is affecting every aspect of our oceans.
There is 1020kg of plastic per person, enough for 92,727 water bottles.
Kenya bans plastic bags, making it one the most recent of the more than two dozen countries that have sought to reduce plastic bag use through fees or bans.
There is 1060kg of plastic per person, enough for 96,363 water bottles.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN sign up 290 companies including Danone, H&M Group, L’Oreal, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Mars to commit to the ‘New Plastics Economy Global Commitment’ to ensure 100% of packaging can be safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025.
There is 1120kg of plastic per person, enough for 101,853 water bottles.
The first concrete steps are taken towards removing plastic from our oceans. The Ocean Cleanup launches its first pilot in June, after years of development and testing.
There is 1164 kg of plastic per person, enough for 105,816 water bottles.
Canada moves to ban harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. This act takes concrete steps against the worst offenders – such as shopping bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks – and lays the path to taking additional steps to reduce plastic waste, where supported by scientific evidence and when warranted, against other plastic products.
There is 1255kg of plastic per person, enough for 127,478 water bottles.
If we continue to produce plastic at our current rates, the future looks pretty scary. Some estimates predict that the amount of plastic on earth could grow to 3734kg per person by the year 2050, and that’s assuming the world grows by another 1.8 billion people. In the next 30 years, we may create 3.5 times the amount of plastic we currently have on earth.
Luckily, there are some things we can do to keep this growth under control. Find out how we may be able to reign our growing plastic addiction.