The History of Plastics

Image result for fruit in plastic packaging

Have you ever returned from a shopping trip or errands without having the need to throw things away when unpacking? Chances are slim since plastics and other non biodegradable materials are intertwined with the products we buy. Supermarkets have groceries in every aisle which are packaged in plastic and even fresh produce have plastic stickers on them and are bagged in plastic. Clothes have plastic tags and stickers on them as well. Even fast food restaurants have placed convenience in front of sustainability since all of their meals are usually packaged in single use disposable items. What led to the development and implementation of these unsustainable materials in our daily life? Many different factors played a key role which led them to become a common material. The turn of the twenty first century has led to a faster pace of life where modernization and efficiency have taken prominence over other factors including our health and the environment. Modernization also led to new technological innovations both good and bad. Plastic was one of many new innovative products that were introduced during this time period. In sum, the development of plastics starting in the late 1860s to the recent market changes of the twenty-first century have led to the development and mass use of unsustainable materials in multiple aspects of our daily lives.

Ever since populations have started to exponentially grow,  humans have only had one limitation: nature. Natural resources are finite. Once they are used we will have to turn to other alternatives. In this sense, synthetic materials like plastic originated as a useful alternative resource. “Plastic was conceived to cut manufacturers free from one of the greatest obstacles in industrial production: the limits of nature” (Rogers).  The first plastic was invented in 1868 when inventor John Wesley synthesized celluloid, a material that was later used in photographic film and even in the first motion picture (History of Plastics).

Once plastic was developed, the contributions of multiple people influenced its structure and led it to evolve to what it is today. Despite its invention in the mid-1800’s, plastics did not attain global popularity until 1909 when Dr. Lee Hendrik Baekeland introduced phenoformaldehyde plastics. Baekland was also able to streamline synthesis by adding the elements of heat and pressure to the reaction. This modification yielded a liquid phenoformaldehyde product, which is much easier to mold than its solid counterpart, and thus increased the potential of the still new material. The third major development in plastics occurred in the 1920s when several new material, including nylon and vinyl, were introduced. Because of its chemical properties, the introduction of cellulose acetate made fabrication and use of plastics much safer. Ureaformaldehyde was also developed during this time. Unlike its dark-colored predecessors, it boasted a light color that could be dyed to make more attractive, and therefore more marketable, products. Resins and polystyrenes, used in paints and packaging respectively,  came shortly after in the 1930’s.

World War II induced rapid growth and technological advancement in many industries, so it is no surprise that a wide variety of plastics were developed during this period and a few years afterward. Here we see the rise of insulating plastics as were needed for military equipment. To fill this need, polyethylene and thermoset polyester were developed. The following decade brought the production of engineering thermoplastics, a subgroup of plastics with an incredible impact strength as well as thermal and dimensional stability comparable to that of metals. This group included materials such as polypropylene, acetal, and polycarbonate. The trend of thermoresistant plastics carried over into the 1960s and 1970s to fill the demands of emerging aircraft and aerospace technologies during the Space Race of the Cold War period. This period also brought polyesters that are now commonly used in packaging because of their impermeability.

History has shown how plastics with favorable properties can be designed to fill a niche in an industry. This convenient truth has made it easy for plastics to rapidly make their way into every corner of our modern lives.

The use of unsustainable materials, specifically for product packaging, was exponentially increased due to the changing manufacturing processes of the industrial revolution. During the mid 1800’s mass production was the goal of many companies in order to increase efficiency and accessibility. America’s changes in product production brought along a shift in culture, it is stated best in this excerpt  “Where once people had grown and prepared their own food and made their own clothes, increasingly they were eating, drinking, wearing, and using things that came from factories. We were fast on our way to becoming a country of consumers” (Freinkel).  Depending on factories and mass production in our daily lives created this consumer culture that relies on efficiency in the factories and accessibility to the consumer. To do this, there had to be a way to quickly package goods. The answer that came to be was with the use of plastics, the first being synthesized celluloid. Celluloid and other similar materials helped mass production in two main ways, “Ample supplies of celluloid allowed manufacturers to keep up with rapidly rising demand while also keeping costs down” (Freinkel). As time went on this trend of using synthetic unsustainable materials took off, and now are frequently used in our daily lives.

The impact of the mass production of plastics during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s has created an everlasting effect on both our consumer lifestyle and our environment. Nowadays, it would seem unimaginable to live in a life without out plastic packaging products such as tupperware, plastic zip-lock bags, and other plastic food containers. As our populations increased over the years, manufacturers of plastic materials had to increasingly produce products to keep up with consumer demand. This increase in production in plastics has riddled our environment with unsustainable materials and has created a variety of issues to be dealt with. Innovation has allowed plastic factories and manufactures to develop new products using different materials at an extremely efficient rate. The problem with this is that when these new products are created, we aren’t likely to know the possible exposure effects of theses products on our environment and health. Plastic materials are extremely harmful to the environment in the way that they are slow to degrade, meaning that their physical presence lasts longer than other materials in our environment. Plastic waste can be found almost anywhere near civilizations, it can end up in the oceans and damage marine life or it could end up burning in a landfill, releasing harmful carcinogens and pollutants into our air. In conclusion, our past history with plastic packaging has led to a long-term, detrimental effect on our environment due to the use of unsustainable materials and change in consumer culture. It is important to understand that consumer demand drives the market for plastic materials, and consumers need to realize that although plastic packaging products may be convenient and cheap, they can led to unfavorable environmental conditions.

Works Cited:

Freinkel, Susan. (2011, May 29). “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World: Cheap plastic goods have unleashed a flood of consumer goods.” Scientific American. Retrieved from

“History of Plastics”. Polymer Plastic Company LC. Retrieved from

Rogers, Heather. (2005, May 1). “A Brief History of Plastic.” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture. Retreived from


One thought on “The History of Plastics

  1. randypeppler March 13, 2017 / 2:27 pm

    Love your visual! Great quote from Rogers in the second paragraph. This is very well done, although I think you could have identified sources better in some of your paragraphs (paragraphs 3 and 4 for example. Maybe in one of the concept chapters you can talk about the different types of plastics and the risks/hazards they pose. Nice job.


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