From packaging to clothing, toys, appliances, cars, medical products, and more, plastics are an essential part of lives. They also fill our landfills, pollute our oceans, and contribute to climate change. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of plastics, including our current relationship (positive and negative) with this ubiquitous material as well as ongoing research into materials that may one day replace plastics.

Key Lecture Points

  • For thousands of years, humans have used malleable materials such as wood and plant material as well as animal derived materials such as horn, shell, bone, leather, sinew and fur (wool).  Humans found that these materials (and many others) were light, strong and (most importantly) could be molded, shaped and woven for various purposes.  Today, we refer to these materials as natural polymers.
  • Industrialization began to place a strain on the use of natural polymers.  Some of them, such as ivory, became more scarce.  Others, which artisans may have carved (at expense), may not have been easily molded by a machine.  Either way, the 19th century ushered in an era where scientists, inventers, industrialists and entrepreneurs began to seek out new materials that would have the flexibility of natural polymers, but would lend themselves to the industrial age: synthetic polymers, or “plastics.”
  • The first experiments in plastic were semi-synthetic, in that they utilized existing natural polymers (like rubber or wood cellulose) and manipulated them with chemicals to make them more uniform and applicable to a purpose.  The earliest success in this was the 1869 invention of celluloid.  The first fully synthesized, mass-produced plastic was created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland.  A combination of a phenol and formaldehyde, Bakelite was utilized as an electrical insulator, and in many other ways.
  • The urgencies of World War II led to many new applications of petroleum-based plastics.  Thereafter, plastic production exploded in the US and globally.  According to one study, between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion tons of synthesized plastic was manufactured.  Plastics exist today as coatings, toys, textiles, machine parts, human body part replacements, and other medical devices and our standard of living would be greatly reduced if they disappeared.
  • Environmental concerns, however, are changing the way many people view plastics.  The inexpensiveness of plastic manufacture has lent itself to its being perceived as disposable. 76% of all plastic manufactured has been treated as waste with only 9% recycled.  Because plastic is not biodegradable, it is appearing in greater amounts in the soil, air and waters of the world, threatening wildlife and human health.
  • Many start-up companies today are founded on a plan to produce alternatives to fully synthetic plastics including more biodegradable materials and repurposing natural materials for packaging, storage, and varied other uses, a return to the past.

Discussion Questions

  • Describe the historical forces that made petroleum-based plastics the dominant material form of the 20th, and so far, the 21st centuries.
  • What other alternatives can be easily integrated into daily life to reduce plastic use and waste?

More to Explore

  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) info on plastics Click here
  • United Nations Environmental Programme plastics info Click here
  • European Union Environmental Agency info on plastics policy Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Kries, Mateo, Jochen Eisenbrand, and Mea Hoffman (eds). Plastic: Remaking Our World. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Museum, 2022. 254 pages. This book examines the success story of plastic in the 20th century and presents various discourses on waste management and future solutions.
    Click here to order
  • Cobb, Allison. Plastic: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Nightboat Books, 2021. 352 pages. This book exposes the interconnections among plastic waste, climate change, nuclear technologies, and racism.
    Click here to order
  • Freinkel, Susan. Plastics: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. 336 pages.  This book combs through scientific studies and economic data and tells the story through eight familiar plastic objects.
    Click here to order