A Brief History of Plastic Packaging

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

With the recent signing of Senate Bill 54 (SB 54) into law on June 30, 2022 by Governor Gavin Newsom, the plastic packaging and waste systems in California are set to change in the near future. While this law isn’t a comprehensive cure-all solution to the massive plastics problem, it is the first of its kind in the U.S. and marks an important step on the journey towards a more sustainable relationship with waste. Understanding the history of plastic packaging and remembering what life looked like before single use plastic was ubiquitous can help open the collective imagination and inspire new patterns of consumption and methods of design for everyday products. 

SB 54 mandates  that all packaging in the state be recyclable or compostable by 2032, while also requiring that plastic industry members raise $5 billion over 10 years in order to respond to the damaging effects of plastic pollution on disadvantaged communities. By establishing a producer responsibility organization, the law attempts to shift the economic burden of plastic waste to producers in the industry rather than consumers. This is an integral part of the plastics problem, as the industry has long externalized the detrimental effects of plastic onto the general public, specifically causing the most harm to marginalized communities.

The most obvious example of the industry’s lack of responsibility is through their extensive promotion of recycling. In 1826, the first man-made plastic was demonstrated at the Great International Exhibition in London by Alexander Parkes. However, it wasn’t until the mid-forties that the plastic industry greatly expanded as a result of World War II, increasing plastic production by 300 percent. After the war, the industry continued to grow by using purposeful marketing strategies to convince the public to transition from a more prudent and less wasteful lifestyle to one in which consumption was the focus. Initially, there was a lot of public resistance, but the resistance was overcome by the convenience, efficiency, and ease that plastic provided. 

Although dampened for a while, criticism about plastic rose in the 1970s with the celebration of the first Earth Day. As awareness about the finite nature of the earth grew, discontent and frustration at plastic companies rose as well. In response, many companies and some environmentalists supported an advertisement campaign by the anti-litter organization Keep America Beautiful that featured the slogan “People start pollution. People can stop it”. This campaign included the infamous commercial in which a white actor of Italian descent portrayed an Indigenous character who shed a slow tear in response to the rampant plastic pollution. Recycling was promoted as a response in order “to deal with the problem of disposability without endangering disposability,” as described by Dr. Max Liboiron, an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University who studies the intersection between pollution and colonialism.  

While this focus on recycling did inspire more people to contribute to cleanups and remove plastic from the public eye, it did little to address the root cause. Instead, it redirected the blame onto the people who bought the plastic rather than the companies that produced it, all while providing concerned citizens with a false sense of assurance that their disposable lifestyle was being recycled and made into something new. This sense of assurance is a direct result of the considerable funds the plastic industry has poured into making recycling seem like the only solution. In actuality, a global study in 2018 found that only nine percent of plastics actually get recycled, with the rest going to landfills, the ocean, or countries in the Global South. Liboiron summarized these problems in a recent interview on the For the Wild podcast,  “Do I recycle? Yes. Do I think it is a solution to plastic? Hell no… So recycling is good for ethics, you can be a good citizen. It’s better than nothing, but it is not the solution, because it actually allows the problem to continue—it allows that tap to keep going.”

With plastic production expected to triple by 2050, implementing stronger and more extensive laws regulating plastic use is a necessity. In the meantime, Maggie Gainer, one of the founders of Zero Waste Humboldt, suggests three key tips for navigating the world of plastic packaging, especially when it comes to claims about its recyclability. First and foremost, she advises against reading the packaging and allowing it to influence how you determine what is recyclable. Secondly, and perhaps most challenging, Gainer suggests that when in doubt, consumers should throw a plastic package out rather than contaminate full loads of recycling with non-recyclable items. Her last suggestion is switching over to reusable containers and items in the first place, which can be difficult when almost everything in the grocery store is wrapped in plastic. In response, Gainer advises consumers to express their concerns about plastic to their local grocery store manager. However, she stressed that change would only occur if multiple people continuously communicated their concern.

While the system may be designed to enable endless single use plastic consumption, Liboiron emphasized in an interview that, “Most of that packaging has been necessary only since the 1950’s—that’s living memory. We can circulate goods in ways we remember from living memory differently than totally packaged in plastic.” Utilizing plastic in situations where it makes sense can be lifesaving, but using the longest lasting material for the shortest lived items fuels lifestyles of waste and overconsumption. While plastic companies have worked hard to implement the assumption that all humans are inherently wasteful, in reality, humans were taught to waste. “It’s possible to have a happy life without so many plastics,” said Gainer. 

See the infographic on the following page for information about packaging before plastic in order to inspire ideas about how packaging could look in the future. 

Resources for Further Learning:

  • Plastic Wars, PBS Frontline
  • California Passes First Sweeping US Law to Reduce Single-Use Plastic
  • For the Wild Podcast Episode: Dr. Max Liboiron on Reorienting Within a World of Plastic
  • Anti-Colonial Science & The Ubiquity of Plastic

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