The History of Plastic // How is plastic made and why is plastic so popular?

Did you know that plastic is made of oil? Yeah, I didn’t either until I started diving into this lifestyle. Ever think that maybe that’s why plastic is so widespread as it is, because of big oil? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but either way, let’s dive into the lifecycle of plastic and why big oil might be behind it.

How is plastic made?

So, yes, plastic can be made of plants, that is called bioplastic and I have a full post on it here or you can catch the video version here. But, traditionally, it is made of oil. I highly encourage you check out the movie The Story of Plastic to learn more in depth (or, catch this video here), but here is the surface:

The oil is first extracted from the ground using oil rigs and sent to processing facilities. The oil is then refined into ethane and propane which are then treated with high heat in order to be converted into monomers like ethylene and propylene. After the monomers are made, they are combined with a catalyst to create a powder-like substance. This powder is melted down and fed into a pipe to create plastic tubes after it cools. The tubes are cut into pellets which is what companies buy to turn into water bottles or auto parts or whatever else is made of plastic.

If you’re a language nerd like me, you might want to know the etymology: plastic comes from the Greek word “plastikos” which means to grow or form and was first used as an adjective meaning “formative” but now we use it as a noun.

When was plastic invented and why?

Put your guesses below, it is honestly older than I thought it was. Got your guesses in? Okay, plastic has an interesting history. One of the earliest examples was by Alexander Parkes in 1855 which is what we know today as celluloid, PVC was first polymerized sometime between 1838-1872, but the first breakthrough came in 1907 which was the first mass-produced plastic created by Leo Baekeland. This invention paved the way for other plastic to be made and used in a wide variety of ways.

But why is plastic so popular now?

WWII really brought on the popularity of plastic. The war showed that Nylon is a very durable fabric. Plexiglas proved that this is a lighter, more durable version of glass for aircraft. Plastic helped food to preserve longer. During this time, plastic production increased by 300%. This was also after the great depression when Americans were ready to live lavishly again. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that plastic production became as we see it today: everywhere.

At first, it was seen as a glorious invention and how can you blame them? It made hospitals cleaner, allowed for goods to be stored in the pantry longer, clothes became cheaper. It wasn’t until later that we started to see the consequences of this glorious invention.

Why is plastic still so popular?

We all probably know how bad plastic is: it’s hard to recycle, it is pretty useless even if it is recycled, it never breaks down fully, it’s in our water and in the animals we eat. Why do we still use it though? Because they’re still essential in most ways. Yes, we can all cut back our reliance, but disabled people need straws to drink, we all need medical care, and I’m sure we can all name at least one food we still buy in plastic. It’s cheap to make, it doesn’t break, and it’s accessible.

The goal is to reduce our individual consumption, replace it where we can in manufacturing, and maybe even replace them entirely with bioplastics in the future.

But is big oil in the way?

Maybe. Now, these are just my personal thoughts and speculation, but I think big oil has a lot to do with our heavy reliance on plastic still. What I mean is that electric cars are on the rise as well as ethanol and other biofuels. Bioplastics too are becoming more popular. With that, big oil wants to continue to make their money, so they keep making plastic. They may even be behind why plastic recycling is the way it is.

If you didn't know, plastic recycling is nearly useless in terms of manufacturing. There are clear benefits to recycling, but plastic is cheaper to make brand new than it is to recycle. Producing virgin plastic is how big oil makes their money in the plastic industry.

This article by Drilled News also talks about how oil companies know how to keep demand going. For example, during peak production in the 70s, the public wasn’t using that much oil AND oil supplies were far greater than the demand for oil. They found a way then to make more money (by lowering oil prices to incentivize consumption) and they’re finding a way again to make money. Only this time, it’s by turning more oil into more products made of plastic. They’re making it more convenient, too by constructing more pipelines to deliver ethane directly to industrial facilities from fracking sites.

What now?

Normally I end my videos/posts with an action step for readers/viewers, but this was mostly educational. Though, we can always reduce our reliance on plastic. Next grocery trip, opt for packageless fruits and veggies instead of the bagged ones. Next time you go out to dinner, ask for no straw. These steps are small, yes, but they add up. Imagine if everyone on earth avoided a straw today, that’s 7 billion straws. Over time, our small changes will lead to less and less oil production, especially if we can get others on board.

That’s why I’m here: to educate you about these issues and encourage you to use less plastic (among other things, but this post's focus is plastic). I hope you share this post, or the information in it, and encourage more and more people to reduce their reliance on plastic. This plus writing and calling our elected officials to demand change, divesting from fossil fuels, and so forth will eventually lead to the decline of fossil fuel consumption.

If you’d like a future post talking more about how to cut your reliance on fossil fuels, more than just driving less, let me know!

Until next time, remember that your small actions have a big impact in the long urn :)


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Hey there! Thanks for stopping by! 

My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...


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