History of Plastic

We live in the age or plastic. It is truly the great invention of the 20th century. By 1976 plastics had become the most used material in the world (Moore 41). And of modern uses of plastic, packaging is #1 (Moore 41). Today’s landfills are wastelands of plastic packaging, and much of this is making its way into the ocean. Plastic, unlike paper and natural materials, takes over 500 years to fully break down. Thus every piece of plastic ever created remains in circulation today, either buried in the land or swirling around the ocean.


 Today plastic is derived from petroleum, and our involvement with petroleum for its hydrophobic qualities and adhesive strength goes back thousands of years. “In places where petroleum seeped, man found things to do with it. The walls of Jericho were mortared with pitch, ancient Bagdad’s roadways are asphalted with it, and Chumash Indians in coastal California used it to seal their canoes” (Moore 25). However it’s wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern chemistry did petroleum based plastics conquer the world.


In the 1800s a number of British inventors experimented with natural latexes and tars that were all precursors to modern plastics. In 1823 Charles Macintosh created a waterproof coat using naphtha, a product of tar, to join together layers of rubber (Alwood 302). In 1845 Thomas Bewley created an insulation for cables using a natural latex from the Gutta Percha Tree (Alwood 303). And in 1856 Alexander Parks invented Parkesine, the first manufactured thermoplastic. 


Once oil extraction and manufacturing really took off after World War I, the plastics industry could expand. Between 1933 and 1939, a series of rapid fire inventions revolutionized plastics. German and US based manufacturers invented clear Saran, Acrylic, Polyurethane, Lucite, Polystyrene, and Teflon all in this short period (Moore 36). A few years later World War II would serve as the perfect testing ground for these plastics, and the new materials passed with flying colors. 

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha


According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, of the plastic that is produced worldwide, only 14% is collected for recycling (MacArthur 26). The rest is either burned, entombed in landfills, or in the ocean. The ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean by weight is 1:5 (MacArthur 28). This marine pollution is beyond just an ethical issue, the United Nation Environment Program estimates plastics annual damage to marine ecosystems at USD 13 billion (MacArthur 29). However plastic packaging can also greatly benefit the environment, as its low weight make it incredible fuel efficient for transportation and it’s air/water barrier qualities extend food life greatly.


So what do we do? This thesis seeks to explore alternatives to plastic packaging that can function effectively but also pose no threat to our natural world.

Ian Montgomery