As long ago as 3,500 years ago, humans made use of naturally-occuring plastic, such as the sap of gum trees. This was fine: it was naturally-sourced and biodegradable. And of course, not a great deal of it was needed.
Much more recently, in 1907, the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was produced. Bakelite is made from some unpleasant compounds: phenol and formaldehyde, with wood flour or asbestos fibre as a filler. This kick-started research into other ways of producing similar products. The mass production of synthetic plastics, made using fossil fuels, really began in the 1950s, and there was a lot of money in it.
In the 1968 film ‘The Graduate’, Mr McGuire (Walter Brooke) takes aside Ben (Dustin Hoffman) to give him some advice:
‘I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.’
He was right. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that plastic production really took off, with rapid continuous growth ever since, as the chart below shows:
|Year||Global production of synthetic plastic
|1980||60 million tons
|2020||>400 million tons