A Brief History of Plastic

I sometimes think that there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer, and it’s plastic. It infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis. It gets into every single pore of productive life…

—Norman Mailer, Harvard Magazine, 1983

In 1957, on a small plot in Anaheim, California, the powerful chemical and synthetics manufacturer Monsanto—working with two MIT architects—constructed the first all-plastic house. Contrasting sharply with Sleeping Beauty’s castle towering nearby, this latest addition to Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland”—a showcase for products of the future—was a single-family dwelling in the shape of a large white Fiberglas pod. The model home was a science fiction vision of what Monsanto hoped life would be like in the year 1987. It was packed with plastic inside and out: the external structure, indoor wall and floor coverings, handles, knobs, televisions, dishes, drapes, bathtub, and sleek Charles Eames furniture. Even clothes made from synthetic fibers were hanging in the closets. Millions of visitors streamed in to see the spectacle and imagine a future made of resins.

While average Americans never started living in space-age plastic pods, Monsanto’s prediction wasn’t too far off the mark. Look around most places today—the bank, the grocery store, one’s own home—and there’s a staggering amount of plastic. Countless commodities that were once made from substances like paper, metal, wood, and glass are now cast in resin. Plastic is everywhere. But today’s polymer-laden reality is not simply the inevitable outcome of some natural process; it is the direct result of an industry that was nurtured by massive public spending, unrelenting lobbying, and sophisticated public relations.

Originally invented in the nineteenth century as a replacement for raw substances like ivory, rubber, and shellac (which used to be harvested from insect secretions), plastic was conceived to cut manufacturers free from one of the greatest obstacles in industrial production: the limits of nature. With resins, producers would no longer have to venture across the globe for dwindling natural resources. Now synthetic substitutes could be cooked up in onsite laboratories as needed. This inexpensive material was designed “by man to his own specifications” and because of this it could provide a limitless flow of inputs whenever and wherever manufacturers needed them. Synthetics offered producers true flexibility. As Roland Barthes noted, with plastic “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized.”

From the Ether

John Wesley Hyatt concocted Celluloid, the first successful plastic, in 1869. Made from shredded tissue paper mixed with nitric and sulfuric acids, the goop was most famously fashioned into photographic film. The polymer had limits, however: explosions could easily result from an imprecise mixture, and the stuff wasn’t very durable.

Bakelite was the next major breakthrough in resins. Working in a converted barn laboratory on his estate overlooking the Hudson River, the independent chemist and inventor Leo Baekeland created the first all-synthetic polymer in 1907. He was also the first to call this new substance “plastic.” Baekeland’s process improved on previous attempts at mixing phenol (from coal tar) and formaldehyde (from wood alcohol) and markedly outperformed Celluloid. Pressed into molds when heated, Bakelite sturdily retained its shape upon cooling. The applications seemed endless, as embodied by the company’s logo, the letter B hovering over the mathematical symbol for infinity. Bakelite was used to make all manner of goods, including knobs, brackets, insulation for electric cables, radios, cups, buttons, cameras, telephones, false gums, and silverware handles.

Production processes for polymers were also undergoing major transformations during this period. Injection molding—probably the most dominant plastic-making method today—was introduced in the early twentieth century. This super-efficient assembly-line process involves shooting liquid plastic into a closed mold, letting it harden (which can take only seconds), and then opening the mold to eject the finished product. In the mid-1930s, at one company the same worker that formerly made 350 plastic hair combs per day could turn out more than 10,000 in equal time using injection molding.

The years preceding World War II were a time of tremendous technological innovation for plastics in a climate of escalating industry consolidation. Cutting-edge discoveries like vinyl, ethylene, and acrylic were made not by independent scientists as in previous decades. Instead, these inventions were the assets of laboratories like Purity Hall, the research division of the chemical behemoth Du Pont, and other such operations at Dow, Union Carbide, Standard Oil, and Monsanto. But crucial to the ascent of plastics was massive U.S. government investment and mandated industry cooperation during WWII, which helped build the industrial infrastructure for this new sector. Also underlying the boom in plastics was a powerful industry and lobby group, the Society for Plastic Industries (SPI).

Preceding WWII, the plastics giants were locked in fierce competition with each other, as can be traced through dozens of patent lawsuits. Nevertheless, after a series of golfing getaways full of socializing and cocktails, the sector’s most powerful players founded SPI in 1937. By overriding their competitive propensities, SPI’s members saw that they could forge a long-range vision for plastics, and defend their deeper class interests. Among SPI’s initial acts was implementing industry-wide regulations ensuring that wages were not too high and that no company was charging prices that were too low. And to help lay the groundwork for a future made of plastics, SPI joined forces with the lavishly produced, media-savvy trade journal Modern Plastics, and the group began fostering deep ties to the federal government.

With WWII underway, plastics took on a central role in military supply chains. According to one federal office in charge of wartime production, “plastic now be[came] more important than ever before.” Both on factory floors and in the chemistry labs of the most powerful synthetics producers, a revolution was soon underway. Among other public investments in polymers, the feds threw down a billion dollars for private companies to construct synthetics plants in cities across the country from Louisiana to Connecticut. Not only was the target output of plastics soon met, but production of substances such as fake rubber massively outpaced previous levels of refining “crude” natural rubber. Successful mass-production of synthetics was finally becoming a reality.

Used to make everything from molded gunner’s enclosures, cockpit windows, mortar fuses, helmet liners, goggles, raincoats, waterproof tents, parachutes, color-coded electrical wiring, and parts for the atom bomb, plastics seeped into all levels of military materiality. Dow deployed its new Saran Film to protect entire airplanes, artillery, and other “sensitive military equipment” from salt and sea spray during trans-Atlantic shipping.

And, as with manufacturers in other fields, wartime government oversight compelled unprecedented industry-wide cooperation. Consequent information sharing and standardization led to refined materials and perfected processes. Innovations forged during this time enabled chemists to engineer plastic to exact molecular specifications that, according to a 1942 article in Harper’s, allowed a producer to “make a list of the properties he would like embodied in a new material” and then “custom-build the material as he never could before in all history.” Thanks in large part to public funding and oversight, annual U.S. plastics production tripled between 1940 and 1945.

Domesticating Plastic

Emerging from the hothouse of wartime government contracts capable of unprecedented output levels, synthetics factories were erupting with Tupperware, Formica tables, Fiberglas chairs, Naugahyde love seats, hula-hoops, disposable pens, silly putty, and nylon pantyhose. After the war, according to one executive, “virtually nothing was made of plastic and anything could be.”

Post-WWII reconversion to consumer markets was the make-or-break moment for plastic. The industry had already shown it could mass-produce a vast range of goods for government consumption, but it had yet to prove its mettle in the marketplace. If plastics producers couldn’t profitably sell their wares to average Americans, the industry would surely fall into crisis.

The ripe postwar consumer climate itself was no guarantee that shoppers would buy plastic. Since synthetics had never before been part of the average American’s daily routine, there was little existing demand for the stuff. Also, because plastic couldn’t be repaired when it broke, it melted when heated, and it smelled strange, consumers weren’t always compelled to purchase the mysterious substance. Based on this, SPI concluded that synthetics had to be aggressively marketed through sophisticated advertising and “education” campaigns.

To win consumer hearts and minds, SPI collaborated with the mainstream media on stories and public exhibits about synthetics. Good Housekeeping and McCall’s joined in the boosterism, while House Beautiful, according to Modern Plastics, “did an outstanding public relations job for plastics.” Dedicating special issues to synthetics, these publications also helped get newspaper coverage and distributed promotional kits to readers to assist in “spreading the gospel” of plastic.

Other innovative marketing measures took off during the 1950s. Saran Wrap produced a promotional narrative movie demonstrating the myriad domestic uses of their product. The film featured a quintessential 1950s housewife in a sun-lit suburban kitchen with her young daughter wrapping beef patties for freezing, and twisting the plastic decoratively around homemade candies. This clear malleable material, the movie urged, made life a breeze.

In these same years the infamous Tupperware party was born. Suffering from lagging over-the-counter sales, company owner and inventor of the resealable containers, Earl Tupper turned to Brownie Wise, a zealous independent salesperson whose kitchenside consumer-fests outsold the stores. Tupper quickly made Ms. Wise company vice president and switched to strictly in-home distribution.

Alleviating the isolation of suburban living, these gatherings were occasions for much needed social interaction and a means for housewives to earn money independently. They were also highly effective at further insinuating plastic into normal daily life. With the party well underway, business boomed as Tupperware helped plastic to become a symbol of wholesome American domesticity.

The benefits of strategic marketing and creative promotion were paying off, as Modern Plastics observed: “The public is gradually being educated to look upon plastics as a material that is highly desirable.” The conquest of the market by polymers led to a postwar expansion in the plastics sector greater than overall gross national product. Those critical years after WWII brought a growth rate of more than 15 percent to plastics, almost quadruple that of steel. By 1960, plastics surpassed aluminum, and became one of the largest industries in the country.

Problems with Polymers

By the 1970s, the budding environmental movement helped catalyze a growing awareness of the toxicity and wastefulness of synthetics—many of which were designed to be disposable. In this climate, the public started giving resins a second thought. Maybe those women who, in 1939, feared getting “cancer of the legs” from wearing Du Pont’s nylon pantyhose were right after all. Nevertheless, the plastics sector continued its expansion by aggressively taking over new markets, which facilitated major industry restructuring and further normalized resins as a part of everyday life.

Before WWI, benzene, used for most polymer production, was extracted and refined almost strictly from coal. During the interwar years, the plastics industry slowly began shifting to petroleum for this raw material, but still relied heavily on coal. When synthetics production surged after WWII, demands on coal for benzene shot up as never before. But suppliers could not keep pace, so the federal government stepped in—yet again—by providing generous subsidies in the early 1950s to companies like Standard Oil to build petroleum-derived benzene plants. By the 1970s, these oil-based supply lines provided a wellspring for ever-more plastic.

Amidst huge lines at the gas pump and surging oil prices, the first polyethylene terephthalate (PET) disposable soda bottle was introduced in 1975. Made from petrochemicals—and invented by DuPont’s Daniel C. Wyeth of the famous family of painters—this new disposable resin illustrated the irrational wastefulness of the mass production system. Ubiquitous today, the PET bottle (used most commonly for soda and water) facilitated the beverage industry’s switch from refillable glass to single-use containers. In the past, thick glass reusables were returned to the store by the consumer for a deposit, trucked back to the bottling plant, washed and refilled. In contrast, after each disposable container was used only once it was discarded. The profit potential with throwaways was staggering; for every reusable bottle there could be anywhere from twenty to forty single-use containers consumed and permanently trashed. And since the cost for packaging was passed on to the consumer, the drink makers only stood to gain.

Getting rid of refillables also allowed the beverage industry to undergo massive consolidation. Without being tethered to local bottling plants, the disposable made possible one-way distribution from centralized regional hubs. By the late 1980s, almost all refillable soda (and milk) bottles were out of commission, replaced in many cases with the plastic throwaway. Likewise, switching to polymers facilitated the restructuring of countless other industries, leading to shuttered factories and outsourced jobs.

As resins piled up in garbage cans across the country, public cries for mandated recycling and deposit laws intensified. And, in 1988, the nimble SPI intervened. The industry group adopted the chasing arrow recycling symbol, widely embraced by the ecology movement. In this “greenwashing” maneuver, SPI altered the image slightly by inserting numerals in its center, assigning various polymers grades 1 through 7, which were then stamped onto plastic packaging. SPI successfully promoted this to state governments as a “coding system,” which was adopted in lieu of restrictions like bans, deposit laws, and mandatory recycling standards.

Simultaneously, SPI embarked on a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to promote plastics as environmentally benign. At the time almost $1 of every $10 Americans spent for food and beverages paid for packaging, an increasing amount of which was made from synthetics.

Another more hopeful episode came just as the SPI was unleashing its greenwashing handiwork. In the late 1980s, hazardous plastics came under attack as activists targeted the rampant use of Styrofoam. Taking aim at the fast-food giant McDondald’s, then the nation’s largest consumer of foamed styrene, the McToxics campaign coincided with ongoing headlines about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, then used to make Styrofoam) chewing away the ozone layer.

After a fierce three-year battle during which McDonald’s described Styrofoam as “basically air” that was benign in landfills because it “aerated the soil,” the Golden Arches stopped using the stuff in 1990. A domino effect set in, as drive-thru restaurants across the country ditched foamed plastic containers. Subsequently, most US synthetics manufacturers quit using ruinous CFCs to make their wares.

The highly visible and popular campaign signaled a shift in the way Americans regarded their influence over production. Obviously, the effort highlighted that people were no longer willing to faithfully accept waste and toxicity, but it also revealed that they were capable of changing the production process itself.

Toxic World

Synthetics are toxic to produce and sometimes toxic to use. Today, plastic continues to be manufactured with petroleum products and other dangerous chemical offspring including forms of carcinogenic chlorine and vinyl chloride, and endocrine disrupting phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) in processes that require huge amounts of energy and release staggering quantities of pollution into the air, water, and soil.

According to the Berkeley Plastics Task Force, the power needed to produce one kilogram of ethylene, the raw material for all packaging plastics, would light a 100-watt bulb for 56 hours. Beyond that, the hazards of manufacturing with plastic are brutal. According to a study prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency, producing an item with PET—one of the least poisonous plastics—generates one hundred times more toxic emissions than manufacturing the same item with glass.

Phthalates and BPA, known as “plasticizers,” are used to make synthetics malleable, for example in children’s toys, water bottles and shower curtains. Phthalates and BPA can be carcinogenic and can release what are called endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interfere with hormones, which effect most bodily functions.

While there are no definitive links between the effects of phthalates and BPAs in people, some scientists are alarmed that lab tests in mice echo the recent spike in human reproductive problems like early onset of puberty, low sperm counts, female infertility, and increased rates of breast and prostate cancer. Perhaps better publicized are the cases of wild salmon, alligators, mollusks, and other animals that have disturbingly grown the genitalia of both genders and been rendered infertile thanks to endocrine-disrupting chemicals loose in the environment.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is made with a gas form of the monomer vinyl chloride, and is used in products like bottles for water, cooking oil, and mouthwash, as well as in meat wrap, baby teething rings, pacifiers, and Barbie dolls. Vinyl chloride is still widely used today even though it has been recognized as a carcinogen for decades. In 1974, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its first major regulatory decision—a restriction on worker exposure to vinyl chloride after sixteen American and ten European vinyl laborers died from angiosarcoma, a rare liver cancer.

Beyond the production line, most plastics leach their toxins into the food they contain, particularly when polymers come into contact with fat or when they’re heated, for instance in a microwave. PVC packaging can release carcinogens, phthalates, a host of heavy metals, and mercury, a known neurotoxin. The chemical acetaldehyde can migrate from PET (water and soda) bottles into the liquids they contain. A range of chemical compounds can seep from High Density Polyethylene (used for milk jugs, plastic bags, and yogurt cups), Low Density Polyethylene (used in produce bags and food storage containers), and Polypropylene (used for bottle caps and drinking straws). And styrene, found in most people’s body fat, migrates from products made from polystyrene like meat trays and foam take-out food containers. None of these contaminants are monitored, and none of them are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The plastics industry and the U.S. government officially dispute any connection between synthetics and health problems, and reject restrictions on chemicals like phthalates in food containers. According to seasoned Washington DC lawyer and long-time SPI general counsel Jerome Heckman, all is well. “We did a ton of testing and supplied our results to the FDA…They are satisfied it is not a problem.”

Since WWII, producers have cranked out ever more synthetics. Thanks to this unprecedented success and SPI’s pushing of polymers, plastics have become the new norm, overtaking a vast array of markets—from snow shovels and living room furniture to subway tickets and beer bottles. The US plastics industry has boomed over the last fifty years, growing at twice the annual rate of all other manufacturing combined. Perhaps that’s why the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton. As The Graduate predicted, the future is indeed in plastics.

This essay was adapted from the book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, coming out this fall from the New Press.


Heather Rogers

Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.