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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Plastic: History, Production, and Social Impacts

By Margaret Manion

Plastic: History, Production, and Social Impacts

Those wishing to begin their historical understanding of plastics with an entertaining story may find that 100+ Years of Plastics, edited by E. Thomas Strom and Seth Rasmussen, provides a good point of entry. A commemorative publication of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the book recounts in impressive and sometimes amusing detail how in 1907 Leo Baekeland invented the material that came to be known as Bakelite, the first plastic ever made from synthetic components, by combining formaldehyde and phenol and subjecting them to heat and pressure inside an enormous pressure cooker called the “Bakelizer.” The device is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections as a National Historic Chemical Landmark, and the story is also memorialized through a webpage at the ACS website entitled “Leo Hendrick Baekeland and the Invention of Bakelite.” For a more comprehensive overview that includes plastic’s history, production methods, and environmental impacts, some readers might rather turn to David Newton’s reference handbook Plastics and Microplastics, an especially helpful resource since it offers multiple perspectives, a glossary, and citations to many additional resources. Newton reaches back to the mid-nineteenth century, starting with the creation of the first synthetic polymer in 1869 (celluloid)—a contested invention commonly attributed to John Wesley Hyatt (1837–1920). Newton advises, however, that neither invention (neither celluloid nor Bakelite) was followed by very widespread use of plastics outside the military until after World War II. During the war, he points out, plastics production increased by about 300 percent largely due to its utility in manufacturing aircraft and parachutes. Then after the war, annual production saw a steady increase, mushrooming from only two million tons in 1950 to upwards of 380 million tons worldwide by 2015, with most of this upswing occurring after the year 2000.

For instant access to copious data on the history and production of plastics in the world, one may also explore the Oxford University–based project website Our World in Data (, where, for example, an informative article by researchers Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (“Plastic Pollution”) can be consulted, in addition to voluminous statistical data about worldwide plastic production. Accessing the site’s dynamic “grapher” visualizations, readers may select from no fewer than forty-eight unique statistical charts covering, for example, global plastic waste by disposal method over time (1980 to 2015); plastic waste generation by industrial sector (2015); and mean product lifetimes of various types of plastic. Our World in Data shows the growth in annual global plastic production to be an increase from two million tons in 1950 to 381 million tons in 2015 (as mentioned above)—with the largest share used for packaging—and shows also that the cumulative amount of all plastics ever produced amounts to 7.8 billion tons: more than one ton for every person alive in 2022, with more than half of that total having been produced after 1980. Prior to 1980, only a negligible percentage of plastic waste was recycled or incinerated, but by 2015, about 55 percent was discarded, with 25 percent incinerated, and 20 percent recycled. Nevertheless, despite the increase in proportion of recycling since 1980, the much more significant increase in overall plastics production worldwide also means that a greater quantity of plastic waste than ever before must now be dealt with.1

Aside from getting a grip on statistical and historical information about plastics, readers may also wish to consider the extent to which plastics have become embedded not just in modern material culture but also in contemporary thought and cultural criticism. Heather Davis, in her new book Plastic Matter, explores how this happened in terms of her own biography. She tells the story of plastic packaging, but from a very personal angle, recounting how her grandfather innovated the packaging of milk in plastic bags as a successful DuPont chemist in 1950s Canada, and what it was like for her to grow up as the descendent of a plastics innovator within a social framework she characterizes as “modern settler colonialism.” In this work Davis deftly bridges the gap between the family and utilitarian history of plastic and the material’s increasing hold on quotidian embodied experience. Analyzing the psychological transformation associated with her personal identification with “plasticity” as a young queer adult, Davis clearly stakes out the territory for a fluid and intersectional metaphorical role for plastics within the ecocritical discourse of the twenty-first century.

1. These statistics are available at the Our World in Data project site. The open access report “Plastic Pollution,” first published in 2018 and authored by Our World in Data founder Max Roser and staff researcher Hannah Ritchie may also be viewed, and the site offers a convenient “FAQs on Plastics” page ( The statistical data, the report, and FAQs are offered under a “Creative Commons BY” license in accordance with Our World in Data’s publication policy.

Works Cited