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Updated: Jun 4, 2021

The invention of synthetic plastic was revolutionary and served a great purpose. It just wasn't meant for single-use.

Plastic has a fascinating history and is essential to modern life. It has contributed to fairer wealth distribution and allowed the invention of countless products we rely on daily. But we are now experiencing the repercussions of having taken advantage of its low production cost and ease, teamed with single-use. So much so, that we can no longer ignore the negative effects.

The negative effect is the build-up of plastic pollution as it doesn't ever degrade back into nature. It eventually breaks down into tiny micro plastics, which not only harms marine life, but us.

Plastic's durability is great for items we don't just use once, but single-use products and throw away plastic packaging needs a reset. Let's take a look through plastic's history and see how it has come full circle to show us what changes we need to make today.

The History of Plastic

John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in 1869 after being inspired by a New York firm's offer of $10k (about $300k in our time) for anyone who could find a substitute for ivory.

Before plastic, wild elephants were slaughtered for their tusks to produce billiard balls as no other natural material had the size, strength and beauty. It wasn't just the elephants that suffered. Turtles, especially the endangered hawksbill sea turtles were hunted for their shells. Tortoiseshells were widely used throughout history to decorate furniture and produce small boxes, spectacle frames, guitar picks, knitting needles, combs and brush handles.

Horns from cows, goats and sheep were used for corset boning, shirt collars, utensil handles, and cheaper combs and brush handles. Scarcity in sourcing these natural materials as well as silk, cotton, wool, linen, wood, rubber and metal bought social and economic constraint.

In 1883, Sir Joseph Swan patented the first 'artificial silk' which he initially invented as a thin and strong synthetic filament for his carbon filament lamp, first demonstrated in 1879. He realised this fiber had further potential to revolutionise textile manufacturing and his wife Hannah used it to crochet doilies, table mats and the edging of handkerchiefs. The patent was later sold to Courtaulds, a textile and clothing manufacturer, and later further developed into rayon.

Wallace Carothers, a Du Pont chemist invented Nylon in 1935 as an improved substitute to rayon. It was first commercially used in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed by the invention of nylon stockings in 1939 (a substitute to silk or rayon stockings). Four million pairs landed in department stores across the US on May 16, 1940, and were an instant success, selling out within 2 days at $1.15 a pair.

In 1909, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic without any molecules found in nature. First created as an insulator for electrical wiring, it was quickly realised as the "material of a thousand uses." From here it made its way into ordinary life after Kodak introduced its first Bakelite camera in 1911.

Ever-Ready single edge razor from 1912 in its original Bakelite box

The production of plastics tripled by weight each year since then as its fluid, mouldable properties gave a streamlined aesthetic of its own. People were fast buying into the modern look and affordable glamour of plastic.

WWI caused a shortage of metal which forced manufacturers to consider using plastic for caps and other types of closures. This was the beginning of the plastic packaging industry and by 1940 it grossed about $500 million, which represented a small but fast growing portion of the industry.

By 1941, tin was in short supply and other metals were scarce. The US had abundant oil reserves so polymers for manufacturing plastic resins could be produced. Plastic was rethought to serve a more functional purpose for WWII, being more shock-resistant than metal as well as being water-proof. It could perform better than metal, tin, wood or rubber under an array of conditions.

Hundreds of new uses for plastic packaging were created for the military. Plastic drink bottles replaced heavy metal canteens, firearms were shipped in plastic bags to float when dropped in water, clear plastic envelopes were made to protect important documents. Rigid plastic was used to pack and ship drugs, ammunition and spare parts. It also provided safe storage for the Navy's first aid kit.

Nylon was the perfect material for parachutes, parachute cord, helmet liners and more. During this time, plastic production increased in the US by 300% and lead to the creation of many other plastics including dacron, styrofoam, polyester, polystyrene, polyethylene and vinyl.

It was during WWII that Americans came to expect their cigarette packs to come wrapped in plastic cello. Many of the military uses for plastic as a material was adapted for civilian use. Post-war, the plastic packaging industry continued to grow at a steady pace as it was functional for producers, transporters and retailers. It could be turned into any color, making it emotionally appealing and brands slowly started using this to further advantage.

The plastic bag was invented in 1965 by Sten Gustaf Thulin and patented by the Swedish company Celloplast. It was developed as an environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags which production resulted in deforestation. The inventor didn't see it as a single-use product, but as a reusable and durable alternative to paper.

Nathaniel Wyeth, another Du Pont scientist, patented the first PET bottle in 1973. It was light weight, cheap and safe for storing carbonated drinks which led Coca Cola and PepsiCo to introduce the first two-litre plastic soda bottle in 1978.

The 1980's was the decade when plastic bags widely replaced paper bags in the US, as they were cheaper and more practical with handles. During this time, the popularity of bottled water also grew at a fast rate as a healthier alternative to sodas and liquor.

Now globally more than a million plastic bottles are sold every minute. Plastic bottles and jars count for about 75% of all plastic containers by weight.

Plastic, which was invented to save the elephants, turtles, trees and aid the war has become one of the world's biggest pollutants. It's not just plastic bags and water bottles. Abandoned fishing nets make up the majority of the large plastic pollution in the ocean. Plastic microbeads and microfibres from synthetic clothing are also entering our water systems. And since COVID, face masks and plastic gloves are the latest pollutants. Plastics resistance to degrading is a great attribute, but it's now become a health and environmental threat that's effecting us all.

So what can we do to reverse the plastic problem and restore balance?

Every little bit counts and together we can make a big difference. As individuals we can start making some changes at home. See Change Daily Buying (& Lifestyle) Habits for a few tips.

Just like the invention of synthetic plastic was inspired by a New York firm's cash offer for anyone who could find a substitute for ivory, ZLOW is here to support new innovation for plastic-free packaging and single-use products. Please contact us to see how you can apply.


This blog was inspired by The Total Package by Thomas Hine

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