For most of human history, our ancestors used whatever they could find to fashion basic tools and other products. We used metals to make swords and knives, plants to build houses and paper, and ivory and bones to make sculptures and jewelry, among many other things. These represented major advancements for our species, but we depended entirely on naturally occurring materials to facilitate our ways of life.
Up until roughly the last hundred years, polymers fell into that category as well. We’ve been making things like balls and figurines out of naturally occurring polymers—substances or materials made of very large molecules that are repetitive multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers—for thousands of years. That all changed in 1907 when a Belgian-American chemist named Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic polymer, which he humbly named Bakelite. Baekeland coined the term plastics to convey the versatility of his innovative product. In Greek, plastikos means “capable of being shaped or molded.” Plastics are both durable and malleable, which is a rare combination in nature.
For a while, plastic production was curtailed by both the lack of source materials and limited chemical knowledge of how to reliably make synthetic polymers. That all changed with World War II as production nearly quadrupled from 1939 to 1945, coinciding with rising oil production and a postwar economic boom driven by an abundance of new consumer products.
Plastics were the perfect product for a new consumer culture centered on speed, convenience, and disposability. They’re cheap and easy to both make and dispose of, they’re a byproduct of oil refining (meaning they kill two birds with one stone), and they can be used to make just about anything, as their name implies. From televisions and cars to packaging and clothing, plastics have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Since large-scale production began in the 1950s, global production of resins and fibers (source materials for plastics) has skyrocketed from two megatons in 1950 to 380 megatons in 2015. It’s simply staggering to consider just how much plastics have dominated all sorts of industries and changed the world.