A brief history of plastics

August 4, 2011


Soooo I am ALMOST finished with The Truth about PVC & BPA, the first of our four-part series on The Truth of Plastic Packaging. I plan to give you, my packaging and sustainability friends, a sneak peek Monday before it is distributed to all Packaging World New Issue Alert subscribers mid-August.

In the meantime, check out the brief history of plastics as described below. I think it important to establish the historical context of anything one researches as how do you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?


Please note: All references made to Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Historian Jeffery Miekle has noted the transition of the perception of plastics in the social imagination of the western world from that indicative of man’s power over nature to that of cheap disposability. First developed to replace scarce natural resources in the mid-nineteenth century, plastics now constitute the nation’s third-largest manufacturing industry, behind only cars and steel (Freinkel, p. 53). How did plastics come to proliferate the modern world?

In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, a substitute for Ivory, in response to the contemporary fear of elephant extinction:

As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances that are constantly growing scarce (Freinkel, p. 17).

While celluloid was initially invented as substitute for Ivory billiard balls, it found further application in combs—a previously luxurious product now made available for the masses (p. 18). By replacing materials that were expensive, celluloid “democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class” (p. 20). In 1907 Belgian Leo Baekland created Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer made entirely of molecules that couldn’t be found in nature. The Bakelite Corporation boasted, “humans had transcended the classic taxonomies of the natural world: the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdom. Now we had a forth kingdom, whose boundaries are unlimited” (p. 6). In 1941 after Pearl Harbor, the director of the board responsible for provisioning the American military advocated the substitution, whenever possible, of plastics for aluminum, brass, and other strategic metals (p. 6). Thereafter, in product after product, market after market, plastics challenged the traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture (p. 6).

Indisputably, plastic does offer advantages over natural materials. However, the proliferation of plastics in the mid-late-nineteenth century was also the result of the rise of the petrochemical industry; that is, “the behemoth that came into being in the 1920s and ‘30s when chemical companies innovating new polymers began to align with the petroleum companies that controlled the essential ingredients for building those polymers” (p. 7). Legend has it that one day John D. Rockefeller was looking over one of his oil refineries and suddenly noticed flames flaring from some smokestacks. “What’s burning?” he asked, and someone explained that the company was burning off ethylene gas, a byproduct of the refining process. “I don’t believe in wasting anything!” Rockefeller supposedly snapped. “Figure out something to do with it!” That something became polypropylene (p. 59). Legend aside, it is fact that Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil was the first to figure out how to isolate the hydrocarbons in crude petroleum. That innovation helped give rise to the modern petrochemical companies that produce the raw, unprocessed polymers know as resins (p. 60). Most of today’s major resin producers—Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil, BASF, Total Petrochemical—have their roots in the early decades of the twentieth century, when petroleum and chemical industries began to develop alliances or form vertically integrated companies. Producers had begun to realize that there might be a use for the waste created in the processing of crude oil and natural gas and in the making of chemicals: rather than being burned off as a worthless byproduct ethylene could be retrieved and profitably deployed as a raw material for polymers. The growing reliance on fossil fuels helped drive the growth of the modern plastics industry, even though the production of plastics consumes only 4% of the country’s oil and natural gas reserves (p. 60). Environmentalist Barry Commoner explains, “By its own internal logic, each new petrochemical process generates a powerful tendency to proliferate further products and replace existing ones” (p. 7).

Taken together, that is, the association between plastics and mans’ ingenuity plus the understanding of plastic as democratizing agent via consumption, coupled with the rise of the petrochemical industry and the economic opportunities generated therefrom, allowed for the proliferation of plastics into modern life:

The amount of plastic the world consumes annually has steadily risen over the past seventy years, from almost nil in 1940 to closing on six hundred billion pounds today. In 1960, the average American consumed about thirty pounds of plastic products. Today, we’re each consuming more than three hundred pounds of plastics a year, generating more than three hundred billion dollars in sales (8).

One Response to “A brief history of plastics”

  1. […] not come into widespread use until well into the 20thcentury. From World War II on, plastics – developed in scientific labs – were a cheap alternative to expensive metals like aluminum and […]

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