Homo Plasticus: A Brief History of Plastic and How it Came to Define Humanity

Updated: Nov 14

This article is a tribute to one of my favourite writers and intellectuals, Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). However, instead of addressing the history of humanity, I will be addressing plastic, in particular, the different, less conventional side to its story.

I believe that the role of plastic in humanity’s prosperity has been undervalued. I previously wrote an article on the dangers of plastic and how micro-plastics live inside our own bodies and freely ‘roam’ the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the water we drink. However, despite openly talking about how harmful plastic is not only to the environment and the climate, but also to our bodies, we cannot deny the fact that plastic has played a crucial role in the global economy during the past century.

Whether we like to admit it or not, plastic has enabled us to live the comfortable and safe lives that many people do in the developed world.

My intention in this article is to share a different side to plastic and explain how it has actually benefited our world and contributed to our wellbeing, despite the environmental harms that it carries.

Plastic’s Past

Plastic is a category of materials called “polymers”, which consist of a long molecule chain which allows the material to be flexible and to be bent (1). Polymers are found in nature - from rubber, collagen, to cellulose - and synthetic plastic was initially produced with the goal of imitating natural materials. Ironically, the very first form of plastic was invented to solve an environmental problem. In the second half of the 19th century, the distribution of ivory threatened the survival of elephants as the first type of plastic was intended as a substitute to ivory. In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt patented “Celluloid,” an innovative material that was named after cellulose, what it was partially derived from. (1) However, the first fully manmade and completely synthetic form of plastic didn't emerge until 1907, when Leo Hendrick Baekeland invented “Bakelite.” Similarly, this material was intended as a replacement for a natural substance, shellac (which is derived from the Iac beetle) which acted as an insulator (5). Therefore, the introduction of Bakelite indirectly enabled people to live safer, more comfortable, and more healthy lives because it aided the expansion of electricity among homes, thus allowing more people to enjoy heating and lighting. Bakelite was truly revolutionary since it was the very first fully man made material to be produced (12).

Subsequently, plastic played an important role for the US economy during World War II. The production of plastics grew by a whopping 300% (1) during the war and this sudden rise in industrial production is often credited as one of the biggest milestones in the history of the American economy, which emerged as one of the world’s most powerful nations after the war. Therefore, plastic has helped lift a significant portion of the American population out from poverty by increasing their disposable incomes: more industrial production means more employment; more employment means more income; more income means more consumerism; more consumerism means more production; and the cycle repeats itself as output increases and the economy grows. This increase in plastics production has indirectly improved the standards of living of American people by strengthening the nation’s industries and enabling people to have greater access to vital necessities and goods than ever before.

However, mass production of plastic in regards to commercial consumer goods didn't emerge to a significant extent until the late 1950s and the early 1960s (4). Plastic was truly considered a ‘miracle’ substance. Its light weight, durability, flexibility, and ability to be moulded into different shapes meant that it could be used in many fields at once: from food packaging to automobile manufacturing. By being lightweight, plastic enabled more packaged foods to be transported; by being waterproof and secure, it enabled food to last longer, helping to tackle hunger and food shortages by lengthening the shelf life of many foods. Plastic’s cheap production process meant that goods were now able to be produced at a mass scale: easily and quickly. With mass production came a decrease in prices. More and more people began having access to consumer goods at this time, thus increasing their standards of living by enabling them to purchase not only food and afford necessities, but to buy treats and other non-essential items, too.

The subsequent decades - the 1970s and the 1980s - saw the first wave of environmental activism that sparked anti-plastic sentiments. Activists began advocating to ban grocery store plastic bags and some US cities even passed laws to prohibit plastic bags. (1) However, instead of reducing plastic production, consumers were blamed. (5) It was believed that plastic is harmful only if it is not disposed of correctly, hence the ‘Reduce-Reuse-Recycle’ movement began. People were lured into a false sense of security that if plastic were to be disposed of in the plastic garbage can, there will be no environmental harm. (5) As a result, consumers continued purchasing plastic and suppliers continued producing it. The plastic industry grew rapidly and helped new industries emerge as a result. Could a more serious response to plastic pollution during the 1970s and the 1980s prevented an environmental crisis that we face now?

Plastic’s Prosperity

Mass production of plastic turned out to be immensely beneficial to the society and the economy. Plastic made the production of mobile phones, computers, televisions, and medical equipment possible. (1) Plastic has also improved the quality of house walls, flooring, and roofs (3), allowing for cheaper repair. It has also enabled the mass production of paints (both ones for domestic use and industrial use), lining, glues, sealants, insulation, and protective linings and coatings (2). It is also used as a key player in technology, especially in wires (since it does not conduct electricity). Its mass production once again meant that more and more technologies were able to be produced at a larger scale. Thanks to plastic, the first disposable plastic syringe was invented in 1955 (4); it allowed healthcare to reach people who previously had little or no access to it. Plastic has not only been useful in the production of life-saving medical equipment, but also artificial organs and “anti-malarial mosquito nets” (5). The ‘miracle’ substance also helped prevent food-borne illnesses (particularly food-related bacteria) thanks to its ability to act as a secure food packaging (5).

It is wise to acknowledge the crucial contribution that plastic has had on our wellbeing. It has inarguably brought in a contemporary consumer renaissance and made the developed world a realm of abundant goods and services.

Yet at what cost?

Plastic is a double-edged sword: it brings both benefits and destruction. A miracle and a curse.

So how exactly has it been harming our lives at the exact same time as it was improving them?

(To be continued…)

Works Cited:

1. “History and Future of Plastics.” Science History Institute, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics#:~:text=Plastics%20made%20possible%20the%20development,in%20heating%20and%20in%20transportation.

2. “Plastics.” American Chemistry Council, https://www.americanchemistry.com/chemistry-in-america/chemistry-in-everyday-products/plastics.

3. “Plastics: Uses, Benefits, and Chemical Safety Facts.” ChemicalSafetyFacts.org, 19 July 2021, https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/plastics/.

4. Plummer, Robert. “Plastic Fantastic: How It Changed the World.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Jan. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-42646025.

5. “The Story of Plastic: How Plastic Has Changed the World, and Where to Go from Here.” VirtueBrush, 17 Jan. 2021, https://virtuebrush.com/blogs/news/the-story-of-plastic-how-plastic-has-changed-the-world.

12. www.acs.org. https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/fahssmithcollection/smith-memorial-collection-at-the-university-of-pennsylvania-historical-resource.pdf.html.

About the author:

I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!


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