ocean plastic

How did we become a “plastic society?” – A brief history of Plastic in the US

There is a movement rapidly gaining momentum.  It’s environmental with a focus on sustainability, consumerism, and conservation. This movement urges us to turn away from our over dependence on plastic.  This man-made substance has undoubtedly made our lives easier in many ways over the last century. Unfortunately it is about to make our lives, our very existence on this planet, much more difficult.  That’s because plastic does not decompose.  Every single piece of plastic ever generated is still in existence.  The Earth cannot digest it.

Plastic Waste

Safety Messenger

When we look into our roadsides, oceans, and landfills, we see that this is a major problem, and it’s only getting bigger.  The daily consumption of plastic is growing at an exponential rate, meaning the growth isn’t steady.  It’s increasing more and more every day.  As the human population grows, we see an increase in need for goods.  With improved economies, we also see a rise in consumerism worldwide.  Much of this consumerism is for useless stuff.  Items that may be enjoyed briefly and are soon forgotten.  For example, think of children’s toys.  The vast majority are made of plastic, have very little purpose, and are often enjoyed for a short period of time before they’re long forgotten.  Another example?  Consider the holidays.  If you walk through any store from September to April, you’ll notice the vast amount of plastic holiday goods. Many of these items may never be purchased or will have a brief use before ending up in our already bulging landfills.

So how did we become a plastic society?  Sometimes it seems like it’s always been that way. It’s hard to believe plastic water bottles have only been available to the public since the 60’s!  In reality, plastic is a relatively new phenomenon.  I’ve constructed a plastics timeline, to help clarify the inception of plastics, and how our dependence on this synthetic material grew and solidified.

It is important to note that some plastics play a very important role in our society. They’re highly valuable in medical equipment, food preservation, and for lightweight strength materials, to name a few. These are not the plastics condemned here. Instead, the issue is single use, unnecessary plastic items meant to be cheap and expendable. Plastic bags, water bottles, cheap toys, and silverware are the types of items having a devastating effect on our environment. They’ve got to go.

Plastic waste in the ocean

The purpose of this post is not doom and gloom, but instead to help us realize that humans have been around for over 200,000 years, and modern civilization for 6,000, and we’ve depended on plastic for less than 100 of those years (Universe Today).  That being said, it’s not impossible to move away from plastics and reduce its damaging effects in our strained environment. We can very easily turn the tide and turn away from plastics for a greener, more sustainable future.

Plastic Use in the US

1869 –  the first semi-synthetic polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt to replace the use of ivory.  This was in response to a New York firm who offered $10,000 for anyone who produced a material that could replace the wild elephant ivory used in billiard cues.  Elephant ivory was expensive, and having a synthetic product was advantageous to the manufacturers.

1907 – the first fully synthetic polymer was invented by Leo Baekland.  Bakelite, the first plastic made with zero natural substances,  replaced shellac as an electrical insulator.  This came at a time when electricity was quickly spreading through American homes and businesses.

Plastic Use in the 1950s1939-1945 – Plastic use in the US increased by 300%.  Along with many other inventions used today, the development of plastics didn’t really gain traction until World War II.  Natural resources were scarce, and synthetic products were useful.  Key plastic inventions included nylon and plexiglas.

Following World War II, our economy turned upward, and the age of consumerism began.  People were ready to fill their homes with “stuff.”  Plastic-made products were cheaper than those of glass and metal.  After the deprivation of the Great Depression and the first and second world wars, the ability to buy and own was seen as a fulfillment of the American Dream.

1947 – Plastic water bottles are first sold commercially.  At this point they were expensive and seen as a quality item.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that they were sold directly to the public (The Nimbus Project).

1953 – High Density polythelene is invented.  This plastic, identified in the recycling formula as #2, is one of the most common plastics we see in everyday products.

1960s – The movement against plastic begins.  Concerns over the negative impacts of plastic production were raised in the mid 1960s.  This was the start of the environmental movement, combined with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the public became aware of water, air, and ground pollution.  They organized to demand improvements in waste disposal, radiation, natural resource depletion, to name a few.  Plastics, were also hot on this list of concerns.  The first plastic debris in the oceans was discovered.  Plastic became seen as a cheap, flimsy product, rather than a symbol of national success.

Plastic bag use in US

Associated Press

1979 – Plastic Grocery bags are introduced in the U.S.  Plastic bags were not an initial hit in grocery stores.  In fact, most were hesitant to use the new product, concerned about price, quality, and consumer buy-in.  It took a heavy campaign to spread plastic bag use widely in the U.S.

1982 – Kroger and Safeway begin using plastic bags.

1985 – 75% of grocers offer plastic bags to customers.  At this point, most still preferred paper sacks.  It took more than decade for plastic to catch on.

1980s – Plastic recycling begins.  In response to the public concerns over plastic’s inability to decompose, the plastics industry was the first to present recycling as an option.  They pushed for recycling programs at the municipal level nationwide.  However, plastic recycling is far from perfect.  In fact, many refer to it as decycling.  There is still a lot of waste in the process, and many people still send their plastics to the landfill (Chemical Heritage Foundation).

Keurig’s first functioning unit

KAFFEEKLATSCH Keurig’s first functioning unit. (Peter Dragone)

1998 – K-Cup pods and Keurig are introduced.  This was a specialty item, with limited success.

2002 – Bangladesh becomes the first country to ban plastic bags.  Today there is an international focus on phasing out plastic bags.  More countries are banning single use bags.  Bangladesh is joined by Rwanda, China, Taiwan, and Macdeonia.  Other countries prefer to charge per bag as in most Western European countries.

2012 – K-cups patent expires, and mainstream products increase astronomically.  Keurig sales go through the roof, and consumers rush to purchase the quick and easy to use coffee pod machines and the variety of K-Cups products.  In 2008 only 1.3 million coffee pod machines had sold.  By 2013, following the patent expiration, 1 in 3 Americans reported to own a coffee pod machine at home or work (Boston.com).

Plastic Bags

Peacetimes News

2014 – California bans plastic bags.  California was the first state to ban plastic bags, doing so in a phase-out method.  Big chains such as grocery stores and pharmacies had to remove plastics by July 1, 2015.  Smaller stores had till July 1, 2016.  This cut out the 13 million bags previously distributed yearly in the country’s most populated state (CNN Money).

2015 – Hawaii bans plastic bags in entire state.  Previously four of Hawaii’s counties had outlawed plastic bags.  When the final county, Oahu, passed the ban, Hawaii became fully plastic bag free.  Some argue this passes California’s ban which is not complete until 2016.

2015 – John Sylvan, inventor of K-Cups, expresses his regret for inventing the product.  “Coffee pods are the poster-child dilemma of the American economy,” beverage consultant James Ewell told Vanessa Rancaño of the East Bay Express. “People want convenience, even if it’s not sustainable.” (Business Insider)  John Sylvan, sold his stake in the company for only $50,000 in 1997.  He admitted to not even owning a coffee pod machine.  “I don’t have one,” he tells the Atlantic. “They’re kind of expensive to use … plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.”

Plastic Ocean Waste

Manila, Philippines – Waste 360

2010-2016 – The movement to ban plastics grows momentum.  People are haunted by images of plastic buildup, particularly in impoverished areas.   Plastic rubbish found in our oceans, streams, and on land increases. Haunting images of children playing in lagoons of water and garbage surface.  And the call to move away from plastics grows steadily louder.

A leader in this movement, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, is calling to people to ban their use of single use products – think of straws, to-go boxes and silverware, water bottles, and to move to a cleaner future.  The Plastic Pollution Coalition is made up of over 400 organizations and businesses, notable leaders, and countless individual signers.  Members include Greenpeace, Captain Planet Foundation, Heal the Bay, and Jeff Bridges, Maroon Five, Bette Midler, Martin Sheene, Jack Johnson, and President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana.

Scientists are rapidly searching for a way to remove plastic from our environment, particularly the ocean.  But they cannot keep up if we continue to use plastic at the rate we’ve been going.  It’s our jobs to be conscious consumers – to say no to the straw, carry bags, and bring our own silverware.  Now is the time to take part and get involved.  You can join the coalition, or make your own concerted effort at home.  For more ideas on how you can get involved check out this video by the Plastic Pollution Coalition.


Do you have ideas on how to reduce waste and say no to plastics?  Please comment below!

As a former REI Employee, I applaud REI’s decision to #optoutside on Black Friday

Black Fridayby Heather Kallevig

Halloween is just around the corner and while many are enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of ghosts, goblins, and sweets, others are turning their minds to upcoming holidays particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It’s a common complaint, as Christmas decorations begin to trickle into store aisles in late September that the holiday season is coming earlier and earlier every year, and with it the shopping season.  Many blame consumer businesses for driving the materialism that often pervades Christmas, those stores who depend on the last months of the year to keep their records in the black.

Black Friday #optoutside

The encouragement to “shop till you drop” has been a major theme of the holiday season for decades.  In our modern society, where many are beginning to seek minimalism, authenticity, and rebel against consumerism, we are beginning to see a change in this holiday shopping scheme.  Black Friday, in most stores, is not nearly as wild and crazy as it was in the 90s and early 2000s.  Whether this is because most consumers prefer to shop online rather than face the crowds, or people are less enthused about buying more “stuff” is hard to tell.  Savvy stores are starting to take notice and are responding to consumer sentiment.

Anchorage REIWhile shop till you drop, and spending money to buy holiday gifts is a fantastic business ploy, and a great way to ensure you have a successful quarter, one store is pushing back, choosing to embrace the values that have established its company culture.  As a former employee, I am not surprised REI has decided to make its employees’ holidays a priority and is giving them the day after Thanksgiving off.  I worked for the Anchorage REI for a year, and it was the best work environment I had ever been a part of.  As an employee I felt valued, respected, and cared for by my managers and my colleagues, not to mention the shoppers who entered our store.

Yesterday I received an email from REI announcing they’d be abstaining from the Black Friday madness, choosing instead to #optoutside and encourage their employees to take the day to celebrate the great outdoors rather than the indoors of a store.

Business-minded individuals may question the idea, but I applaud REI for this decision and hope more companies follow suit, making #optoutside a movement to improve our nation’s company culture and redirect the holiday season to those issues that really matter – family, friends, and making memories.  I know this stance solidifies my decision to shop REI for my personal needs and holiday gifts, not only are their items top of the line, their values are high quality too.

Follow this link to learn more about REI’s #optoutside.

REI closed on Black Friday