The History of Plastic Pollution

The History of Plastic Pollution

Explore the history of plastic pollution and discover how this revolutionary material became an environmental disaster

Plastic has transformed industries, our lifestyles, and our world in a matter of decades. But now this revolutionary material has become one of the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time.

The journey of plastic, from the invention to its pervasive presence in our oceans, is a tale of human innovation, convenience, and unintended consequences. Let’s dig in! 

The birth of plastic

Bakelite laboratory circa 1935

Bakelite laboratory circa 1935

The story of plastic begins in the late 19th century, a time of immense scientific and technological progress.

In 1862, Alexander Parkes attends the Great International Exhibition in London, England, where he demonstrates Parkesine, which is now unofficially known as the world’s first plastic. Derived from plant cellulose, he shows how his invention can be heated and molded into objects that retain their shape when cool.

A few years later in 1868, John Wesley Hyatt combines organic cellulose with camphor to create celluloid. A popular substitute for ivory in billiard balls, celluloid was also used to make the first flexible photographic film for still pictures and movies.

Then, in 1907, Leo Baekeland invents Bakelite—the world’s first fully synthetic plastic. This discovery marks the birth of a new era where scientists and engineers discover new ways to mold and manipulate plastic to create a wide range of products.

The age of convenience

LIFE Magazine, August 1, 1955, pg 43

LIFE Magazine, August 1, 1955, pg 43 

Thanks to their durability, versatility, and cost-effectiveness, plastics quickly gain popularity as a revolutionary new material. Fueled by World War II, industrialization, and the post-war rise of consumerism, plastic production absolutely explodes in the mid-20th century.

Plastics are integrated into nearly every aspect of modern life, from packaging and automotive parts to medical devices and everyday household conveniences.

In 1955, LIFE Magazine publishes an article that celebrates “throwaway living,” a new, modern lifestyle defined by the convenience of single-use plastic products that could be thrown away after just one use. American culture, and society itself, is radically transformed. 

The first warning signs

Laysan albatross chick in a nest of plastic debris 

When it comes to waste management, some of the very qualities that made plastic so appealing—its durability and resistance to degradation—become its Achilles’ heel.

The widespread use of single-use plastics combined with inadequate recycling and waste management infrastructure give rise to crowded landfills overflowing with plastic waste and, eventually, massive quantities of environmental litter.

In the late 1960s, researchers conduct some of the first intensive studies on plastic waste and its presence in our oceans becomes a quiet concern. Around this time, scientists also begin documenting plastic ingestion by Laysan albatrosses and the entanglement of northern fur seals in plastic debris. 

The rise of environmentalism

U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the 1970 Clean Air Act and keynote speaker for Earth Day, talking to an audience of 40,000 to 60,000 people in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia on April 22, 1970

U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the 1970 Clean Air Act and keynote speaker for Earth Day, talking to an audience of 40,000 to 60,000 people in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia on April 22, 1970

Protestors gather at the National Capital Region Earth Day ceremony in Washington D.C.

Protestors gather at the National Capital Region Earth Day ceremony in Washington D.C. 

Awareness about environmental issues grows and, in 1969, an oil pipeline bursts off the coast of California, releasing over 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean. This shocking disaster ultimately births the modern environmental movement in 1970.

Earth Day is observed on April 22 that year. An estimated 20 million people attend inaugural events at tens of thousands of schools, universities, and community sites across the U.S. to demand cleaner water, air, and land. At the time, it’s the largest grassroots environmental movement in American history.

Responding to growing public demand, the Nixon administration establishes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July 1970 with a mission to protect the environment and public health.

Earth Day demonstrations and increasing public awareness are the impetus for national legislation like the Clean Air Act of 1970 as well as sweeping amendments to the Federal Water Pollution and Control Act of 1948 that’s now commonly known as the Clean Water Act of 1972. 

The myth of recycling

Workers inspect shipping container of imported waste in Jakarta, Indonesia

The cycle of overproduction and overconsumption of plastic that leads to pollution is in full swing and the volume of plastic waste continues to grow out of control. In the 1980s, curbside recycling programs emerge to help combat the issue.

Looking back, we can see how the focus on conventional plastics made recycling an ineffective solution. America and other western nations are fully entrenched in a culture of convenience and the use of single-use plastics continues to skyrocket. Items like plastic bags, disposable cutlery, and packaging are widely adopted and plastic production grows exponentially.

With recycling still in its infancy, the vast majority of plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated, or exported to China and other Eastern countries. In America, the EPA considers plastic exports “recycled,” but the reality is that most of these plastics are not actually recyclable; it’s just becoming plastic pollution somewhere else.

Around the world, visible signs of plastic pollution in rivers, oceans, and beaches become harder to ignore. However, the concept of plastic pollution as an environmental crisis barely registers in the national consciousness.

While awareness campaigns are launched to educate the public about the growing problem, they focus on individual consumer responsibility for plastic waste and fail to account for the overproduction of plastic products globally.

Plastic is now so ingrained in our society that it’s impossible to avoid. And, for the most part, the average citizen is still unaware of the long-lasting environmental impacts of plastic pollution. But in the scientific community, it’s a completely different story. 

Research on plastic pollution begins in earnest

plastic pollution floating around the ocean

On his way home from the biennial Transpacific Race in 1997, yachtsman Charles Moore finds himself traversing a sea of plastics as he sails through the North Pacific subtropical gyre. This marks the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a swirling vortex of plastic debris that covers an area larger than the state of Texas.

Additional studies reveal the widespread presence of microplastics—tiny plastic particles that range in size from a pencil eraser to smaller than a grain of sand—in our oceans. As concern and awareness grow, more studies are done that highlight the significant health and ecological implications of plastic pollution. The ocean plastic crisis has become impossible to ignore. 

A growing environmental movement grows even stronger

Today, an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic waste enters our oceans each year (a stark increase from 18 billion pounds estimated just a few short years ago)—and that number is only expected to grow. In the face of this growing crisis, a groundswell of activism and a renewed commitment to tackling plastic pollution take hold. Environmental organizations, scientists, concerned citizens, and even governments start to take action.

Efforts to reduce single-use plastic, implement stricter recycling practices, and develop sustainable alternatives to plastic gain momentum. Cities, states, and even entire countries impose restrictions and bans on some single-use plastics most commonly recovered from the environment, including plastic bags, straws, and cutlery.

In 2016, the United Nations adopts the Clean Seas campaign, a global initiative to combat plastic pollution in our oceans. In 2018, the European Union introduces a ban on single-use plastics and implements measures to improve plastic waste management.

In 2021, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is introduced as a way to  hold brands, manufacturers, and the plastics industry accountable for their role in the ocean plastic crisis—and it still needs our support to pass!

Businesses are also under increasing pressure to adopt more sustainable practices. Many companies are reevaluating their packaging materials, opting for eco-friendly alternatives, and rethinking the end-of-life plan for their products. Consumers are increasingly adopting more sustainable habits and choosing more sustainable products and services as they become available.

It’s the start of a new revolution dedicated to protecting and restoring our oceans and all of the environments that have been harmed by plastic pollution. It’s the start of the clean ocean movement. 

This story isn’t over and we have the power to change the ending

Younger generation of kids pitching in to help reduce plastic waste in the ocean

As we look to the future, the vision is clear: a world where plastic pollution is no longer a threat to life on this planet. It’s a world where sustainable innovation, responsible consumption, and effective waste management systems prevail. A world where humanity grows alongside nature and not at its expense.

The journey from the birth of plastic to the ocean plastic crisis is a complex one, marked by both remarkable human ingenuity and unforeseen consequences. But with the knowledge and awareness we now possess, we can use the same creativity and inventiveness to change how this story ends.

To get there, we must accept the limitations of recycling, rethink our relationship with plastic, move away from our culture of convenience, and work together to revolutionize society once more—this time centered around shared values of social and environmental responsibility and accountability.

Together, we can end the ocean plastic crisis. 

More ways to support the clean ocean movement

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