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Plastic Trends that Changed Everything

Plastic Trends that Changed Everything

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. This means we can see our mistakes more clearly when we think about the past. In the beginning, plastic was a novel invention that offered huge promise for many different industries. Now, with all of the plastic bans across the world, we might wonder if it was worth it.  

Before it became a noun, the word “plastic” described things that were pliable and easily molded into different shapes and forms. The material we call plastic refers to the synthetic polymers that serve millions of purposes in everyday life.

To see just how pervasive this material is, try counting all of the plastic objects you can find in your kitchen. From oven knobs to light switches, plastic is everywhere.

We liberally apply this one word to many different related materials. At their most basic level, plastics refer to polymers. They form when scientists trigger chemical reactions that form long, durable chains of atoms. A series of discoveries of these chain reactions led to the invention of different varieties of plastic.

Invention of plastic timeline

Here are the dates that different synthetic polymers were first discovered or invented;

  • 1839 - Polystyrene (PS)
  • 1841 - Parkesine
  • 1865 - Celluloid
  • 1872 - Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • 1891 - Rayon
  • 1907 - Bakelite
  • 1912 - Cellophane
  • 1898 - Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • 1939 - Nylon
  • 1941 - Polyester
  • 1941 - Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • 1953 - High density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • 1954 - Polypropylene (PP)


Let’s take a closer look at the stories behind the plastics we commonly use for packaging materials.

Polystyrene (PS)--number six plastic--is used for hard packing, CD cases and vending cups. Eduard Simon, a German apothecary, discovered PS in 1839. However, the material could only be scientifically described years later thanks to the work of the German chemist Hermann Staudinger, who published his theories on polymers in 1922. PS became commercially viable in 1931. The same year, a Swedish inventor Carl Munters patented the material that would later become known as styrofoam. Ray McIntire, working for Dow Chemical Co., rediscovered this process in 1941 and turned it into a commercially viable material by the 1950s.

Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC)--number three plastic--is used to make bubble wrap and saran wrap. The material was first synthesized in 1872 by German chemist Eugen Baumann, but he didn’t patent it. The first patent for PVC was registered by German inventor Friedrich Klatte, but it did not become a viable product until around 1926. That’s when Waldo Semon, when he created plasticized PVC while working for B.F. Goodrich Company. The first products he used it for were golf balls and shoe heels.  

Polyethylene (LDPE)--number four plastic--is used for shopping bags and most plastic wrappers. The German chemist Hans von Pechmann first created PE by accident. It was later rediscovered again by accident in England in 1933. This time it was synthesized by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson working at the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). However, it was Michael Perrin, another chemist at ICI first managed to reproduce it intentionally and bring it to market in 1939.

High-density polyethylene (HDPE)--number two plastic--is used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles. This plastic has a similar chemical composition as LDPE, but it uses a catalyst to create the polymer at lower temperatures. Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan developed the first catalyst process at Phillips Petroleum in 1951. The process was improved for effectiveness at lower temperatures by German chemist Karl Ziegler in 1953. These experiments led to the invention of the hula hoop in 1957, one of the first commercially viable products made out of HDPE.

Polyethylene terephthalate(PET)--number one plastic--is used for water bottles and soda bottles. John Whinfield and James Dickson of the Calico Printer's Association of Manchester (England) first invented and filed a patent for PET in 1941. They drew upon the earlier work of Wallace Carothers and Julien Hill of Dupont. However, the most impacting patent for this plastic was registered by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1973 for his PET bottle, that would soon replace most refillable glass bottles for beverages.

Plastic trends that have changed our world

Plastic production and consumption

Prior to World War II, large companies were enmeshed in patent wars over plastic inventions. Around the same time, a lobby group formed that became the primary publicity channel for the emerging plastics market: the Society for Plastics Industries (SPI). Then during WWII, the U.S. government mandated industry cooperation. With the public funding and regulation for plastic manufacturing, plastic production increased threefold by 1945.

After the war, consumers remained somewhat uncertain about the material, so the SPI devoted its time to marketing campaigns. Innovative household products like saran wrap and tupperware, both brought to market in the 1950s, swept the hearts of the nation. Plastic production had exceeded that of aluminum by 1960, becoming one of the nation’s largest industries.

The plastic bag was created in 1965 by a Swedish company called Celloplast, but they didn’t become common in grocery stores in the U.S. until the 1980s. By 1985, 75 percent of grocery stores offered plastic bags, but only 25 percent of customers preferred them. But by 1990, grocery store shoppers used plastic bags four out of five times.  

This trend towards consumers’ embrace of disposable plastic followed the rise of plastic bottles, which had completely taken over the refillable glass bottle industry by 1980.

Plastic recycling, pollution and bans

With the environmental movement of the 1970s, consumers grew skeptical of plastic. Growing awareness about the dangerous levels of waste and the toxic composition of the material led to the classification of plastics. In 1988, plastics manufacturers embossed recycling numbers onto plastics with the familiar triangular arrow symbol. In retrospect, this practice, promoted by the SPI, did not effectively require consumers to recycle their plastics. The SPI also developed advertising to incorrectly advocate for plastic’s harmless impact on the environment, an effort now seen as a greenwashing campaign.

Plastic bottle deposit laws were passed and recycling programs were adopted around the country, but recycling remained a voluntary option for the consumer. In fact, only nine percent of the plastic produced in the world has been recycled.

At the start of 1990, the amount of waste generated from plastic still remained below 100 million tons. However, by 2015 that amount had shot up to 300 million tons of waste produced annually. This level is still expected to rise.

Much of that waste floats in gyres in the ocean such as theGreat Pacific Garbage Patch, which spans twice the length of Texas.

Today’s growing awareness about the health risks of plastics, its threats to marine wildlife, and the overwhelming amount of plastic waste in the environment has led to numerousplastic bans on items such as bags and straws across the globe. The most notable recent ban came from the E.U. Parliament, which voted on a resolution tophase out a variety of single-use plastic items including plastic plates, straws and food containers by 2021.  

China and other Southeast Asian countries have also restricted their imports of plastic waste shipped from recycling centers around the U.S. This has caused an upset in the recycling market and an increased interest in biodegradable plastics and a return to refillable container packaging models.

The future of plastic

In spite of the backlash against plastics and their impact on our environment, the plastics industry expects to increase production by 40 percent from its 2016 amount by 2030.

A variety of strategies to challenge this increase in production include materials innovation by creating biodegradable and continuously recyclable plastic, plastic bans, improved recycling infrastructure, refillable containers and closed loop manufacturing models.

Consumers are also eyeing alternatives and personally avoiding plastic consumption as part of the zero waste movement.


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