This timeline outlines a short history of plastic – a truly innovative product. It also presents some of the impacts plastic has had on our society and environment and a few of the initiatives working to address these impacts. A full transcript is underneath the timeline.
Plastics: innovations and impacts – timeline
- Technological process and innovation
- Societal and environmental impacts
- Commercial and government initiatives
Plastic is an incredibly useful material. The development of plastics and plastic products showcases innovative thinking and design.
Plastics have positively impacted industry, transport, medicine and more. There is a downside. Our overuse and misuse of plastics has negative impacts on society and the environment.
The environmental harm caused by disposable plastic products is leading industry to come up with novel solutions and governments to implement regulations.
Alexander Parkes patents the first plastic products in 1862. Parkesine is made from cellulose – a natural product – and is mouldable when heated and keeps its shape when cooled. It is costly to produce so it is not widely used.
John Hyatt obtains Parkes’ patent and creates celluloid to make billiard balls. Celluloid is largely used in the movie and photographic film industries prior to the 1950s.
Image courtesy of Science History Institute. Philadelphia. Set of Celluloid Billiard Balls in Wooden Box. Circa 1880.
Auguste Trillat immerses casein in formaldehyde to create Galalith. It is used in the fashion industry to make buttons and costume jewellery. Galalith is still used to create buttons today.
Jacques Brandenberger patents Cellophane (from the words cellulose and diaphane – transparent). The thin, see-through sheets are used to package food, allowing consumers to see the items before purchasing them. We still use cellophane in sticky tape, gift wrap and packaging.
Leo Baekeland patents Bakelite – the first totally synthetic plastic. It is heat resistant, and its properties make it an ideal electrical insulator. Bakelite is soon used in goods ranging from telephones to chess pieces. We still use it to make saucepan handles and electrical components.
Image: An iron with Bakelite handle. Electric Iron “Moderne”, circa 1936, New Zealand, by NEECO [National Electric and Engineering Company]. Purchased 1995. Te Papa (T000647)
The term ‘plastic’ is introduced to describe the new group of compounds that are becoming more widely used. Its roots are from the Latin word ‘plasticus’ (to mould) and from the Greek word ‘plastikos’ and ‘plassein’ (to form).
Although PVC has been a commercial product for several years, Waldo Smith and the BF Goodrich Company find a way to make it flexible. Nearly a century later, it is widely used in water and wastewater pipes, gutters and downpipes, medical tubing and more.
Rowland Hill and John Crawford use polymethyl methacrylate to create a safer alternative to glass. They register the product under the trademark Perspex. Otto Röhm creates a similar product, trademarked as Plexiglass.
Image: In a publicity shot, a worker finishes the Plexiglass nose section of a B-17F navy bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, 1942.
Ralph Wiley discovers polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) while developing a drycleaning product. It is initially used for military purposes and is then reformulated to become cling film/plastic wrap. (
Michael Perrin creates a practical method to produce polyethylene. It becomes the most common plastic produced in the world. HDPE (RIC number 2) is used to make milk jugs and bottles. LDPE (RIC number 4) is used to make plastic bags and squeezable bottles.
1938 – Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon)
Roy Plunkett discovers polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE) by accident while working with refrigerants. PFTE is trademarked as Teflon in 1945. A few years later, Collette Grégoire convinces her husband to put Teflon on her cooking pans, and they create a product still in use today.
1938 – Nylon
American company DuPont releases a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938. A year later, it introduces women’s nylon stockings at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Nylon fibres soon become popular for dress fabrics, carpets, tents and may other products.
1944 – Polystyrene
Ray McIntyre and Dow Chemical Company produce a lightweight water-resistant material, patenting it as Styrofoam. Polystyrene is currently used for many purposes. Rigid or moulded polystyrene is used for food and drink containers, while foam and expanded polystyrene is used in packaging and building insulation.
Image courtesy of Science History Institute, Philadelphia. Advertisement for Styrofoam, 1963. Dow Chemical Company Historical Image Collection.
1946 – Tupperware
Earl Tupper purifies polyethylene slag, a waste product, and moulds it into lightweight unbreakable kitchen items known as Tupperware.
1948 – Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
ABS – a thermoplastic polymer – is patented in 1948 and introduced commercially in 1954. This plastic is best known for its toughness, which is the reason LEGO chooses ABS when designing and patenting its trademark bricks in 1958.
1965 – Poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide (Kevlar)
Stephanie Kwolek creates a new strong heat-resistant synthetic fibre. It is first used to strengthen racing tyres. Kevlar is used for personal protection in the military and in sports and in many other applications.
1965 – Plastic shopping bags
Swedish company Celloplast patents what will become the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. Made of HDPE, the design is called “the t-shirt plastic bag”.
1970 – Medical uses
The first flexible plastic IV bag is released for commercial use. The bag allows for closed transfusions and reduces the risk of contamination. Single-use plastic items soon replace many of the multi-use glass and/or metal items once used for medical tasks.
1993 – Fleece clothing
Outdoor clothing company Patagonia begins to use recycled bottles to create its fleece clothing. Plastic bottles are cleaned, melted, stretched and woven into fabric.
Image: Hillary Rodham Clinton is pictured in her Patagonia fleece jacket with her husband and Sox the cat.
2017 – Bioplastic spife a hit
Kiwifruit grower ZESPRI collaborates with Scion to produce a bioplastic spife (spoon-knife) made out of kiwifruit residue in 2012. Prototype biospifes are introduced at a trade show in the Netherlands. They are a hit with European businesses and consumers interested in reducing their plastic footprint. Production scales up, and biospifes become available for consumers in 2017.
Discover more about the development of the ZESPRI biospife.
1961 – Shifting focus
The plastic bag industry funds Keep America Beautiful ads. The ads shift the onus for pollution prevention from plastic producers to consumers.
1977 – Plastic pellets in prions (seabird species)
New Zealand journal Notornis reports that 15% of dead prions examined from 1958–1977 contain plastic pellets. These findings show that plastic debris has been in our local oceans since the early 1960s.
1979 – Promotion of plastic shopping bags
Around 80% of European shopping bags are made of plastic. The trend moves to the United States, where plastic bags are marketed as superior to paper bags.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Yachtsman Charles Moore sails through a huge tract of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer names it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The public is becoming more aware of the growing amount of abandoned fishing gear and disposable plastic goods polluting the oceans.
Image of gyres – rotating ocean currents – where ‘garbage patches’ form in the Pacific Ocean, courtesy of NOAA.
2004 – Exposure to bisphenol A (BPA)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) find detectable levels of BPA in 93% of people aged 6 years and older. BPA is found in some food and drink packaging. The CDC offers suggestions on how to prevent exposure to BPA. (See 2008 and 2017 for local updates.)
2008 – BPA – FSANZ
Food Standards Australia New Zealand suggests that, if people follow manufacturers’ instructions regarding the use of baby bottles, levels of BPA exposure are very low and would not pose a significant health risk. Parents are encouraged to use glass bottles if they have concerns.
2011 – Plastic bag use
Every minute, 1 million plastic bags are consumed around the world.
2014 – Microplastics in the sea
It is estimated that there are 15–51 trillion microplastics in the sea. This amount does not include microplastics that have washed ashore or become part of the seabed.
The image shows plastic resin pellets or nurdles. These are used as the raw materials in the production of plastic items. Nurdles are found throughout the marine environment.
2016 – Microparticles in wastewater
US research reports that wastewater treatment facilities release over 4 million microparticles per facility per day.
2017 – NZ regional council surveys
New Zealand regional councils report that surveys conducted between 2011 and 2017 show plastic makes up approximately 12% of landfill waste.
2017 – Food packaging materials
The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) review of packaging materials and potential migration of substances reports that the estimated dietary chemicals in food packaging is low and is not of concern for human health.
2018 – World-wide plastic production
About 345 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year. It is estimated that, from 1950–2018, we have produced nearly 6 billion tonnes of plastic of which approximately 9% has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated.
2018 – Plastic microparticles on New Zealand beaches
Researchers from Scion, the University of Canterbury and Auckland Council sample 40 beach sites around Auckland. They find 90% of microplastics consist of fibres.
Find out more about microplastics.
2019 – A flood of plastic rubbish
Flood water exposes and dislodges waste from an old landfill near the banks of the Fox River. The Department of Conservation notes that most of the rubbish is plastic, much of which is decades old.
1988 – Resin identification codes (RICs)
Society of the Plastics Industry introduces the voluntary resin identification coding system. The system uses a triangular symbol and number to help people identify and sort plastics for recycling.
1989 – Basel Convention
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is adopted. The convention is in response to first-world countries dumping toxic waste in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
The map shows the countries that signed the convention in red and the countries that signed and ratified in blue. Countries in grey did not sign.
1993 – EnviroPouch
David and James Stoddard create EnviroPouch, a tightly woven fabric that holds sterilised dental tools, eliminating the need for single use plastic wrap.
2002 – Bangladesh bans plastic bags
It is discovered that plastic bags are blocking the drainage systems in Bangladesh, causing major flooding especially during the monsoon season. As a result, it becomes the first country to ban single-use plastic bags.
2005 – Golden Bay Bag Ladies
Golden Bay launches the Plastic Shopping Bag-Free Campaign and becomes the first New Zealand community to say no to plastic bags. Golden Bay Bag Ladies launch the initiative on 1 January by handing out hundreds of cloth bags to visitors and locals.
2006 – Agrecovery Rural Recycling Programme
An industry-funded programme is created to provide New Zealand farmers and growers with free container recycling, drum recovery and chemical collection.
2010 – Voluntary BPA phase out
The Australian Government introduces a voluntary phase-out of BPA use in polycarbonate baby bottles.
2014 – Netherlands microbead ban
The Netherlands becomes the first country to ban microbeads in cosmetics and wash-off cleaning products.
2015 – Operation Clean Sweep
Plastics NZ joins Operation Clean Sweep – an industry initiative/best-practice accreditation scheme that aims to prevent resin pellet, flake and powder loss. New Zealand is one of 84 countries in the programme, 59 of which have achieved best practice in stormwater protection.
2016 – Parley Ocean Plastic
Parley – a global movement that highlights the perils of ocean plastic – removes over 670,000 tonnes of plastic from the Indian Ocean. Sportswear company adidas uses the plastic to make a line of footwear and clothing. It uses 11 plastic bottles in each pair of shoes.
2017 – Flight Plastics
Flight Plastics opens New Zealand’s first PET wash plant. Used PET plastic is collected locally, baled and sent to Flight Plastics for processing and recycled into new packaging.
Find out more about the technology that Flight Plastics uses to sort and recycle PET plastics.
2018 – Plastic fence posts
New Zealand farmers Jerome Wenzlick and Bindi Ground use waste plastic to create premium fencing products. Their business, Future Posts creates a market for soft plastics.
2018 – China enacts National Sword policy
China bans the import of most plastics and other materials that previously went to the country’s recycling processors. Prior to the ban, China had accepted about 50% of the world’s recyclable waste. Shipments of recovered plastic to China drop by 99%.
2018 – Plastic packaging declaration
International and local businesses make a joint declaration committing to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand-based operations by 2025 or earlier.
2018 – Microbeads banned in New Zealand
The New Zealand Government uses the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 to prohibit the sale and manufacture of wash-off products that contain plastic microbeads.
2018 – Microplastics research
The New Zealand Government funds a major study to investigate the extent of microplastic contamination in water. The $12.5 million fund is awarded to deepen knowledge of the amount of microplastic waste, its distribution and the risks it poses to humans and the environment.
2018 – New Plastics Economy Global Commitment
The New Zealand Government signs an international declaration – the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment – designed to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. The Global Commitment is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations.
2109 – All Blacks and Parley
The New Zealand All Blacks join with Parley Ocean Plastic to produce the first-ever adidas Parley rugby uniform collection made from recycled ocean plastic.
2019 – Plastic bag ban
New Zealand bans single-use plastic shopping bags.
2019 – Coca-Cola Amatil moves to recycled bottles
Coca-Cola Amatil announces a New Zealand initiative that, by the end of 2019, all bottles less than 1 L and all water bottles of any size will be made from recycled plastic.
2019 – Basel Convention Amendment
The Basel Convention, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, is amended to better regulate global trade in plastic waste. New Zealand is one of around 180 countries supporting the action.
2019 – Beverage container return scheme
The New Zealand Government begins work to develop a beverage container return scheme. Containers will carry a refundable deposit to be redeemed when the container is returned to a collection depot or drop-off point.
2019 – Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa, New Zealand
The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor's Office has been working on a synthesis of approaches to reduce the impact of plastic and exploring the opportunities of alternatives in Aotearoa, New Zealand.