Timeline: A history of plastic in the supply chain

Plastic has gone from being a revolutionary material that was invented with good intentions to an unsustainable single-use function of rampant consumerism

1860s: Plastic invented to thwart ivory trade

In 1869, the first synthetic polymer was created. John Wesley Hyatt responded  to a New York firm’s offer of US$10,000 for an alternative to ivory, which at the time meant that around 20,000 elephants each year were being slaughtered.

1950s: Plastic introduced to food sector

The birth of fast food – driven by firms such as McDonalds – and the rise of plastics manufacturing in turn gave rise to a take-away culture that saw people use plastic cutlery on a global scale. It was the start of unsustainable waste that continues to plague the world today. 

1970s: Plastic bags become commonplace

Like all plastic, plastic bags begin life as fossil fuels and end up as non-decomposable waste in landfills and the ocean. But in the 1970s, supermarket chains bought them in their billions, and only recently introduced ‘bags for life’ as a replacement.

1990s: Plastic packaging is polluting the ocean

While plastic was developed with good intentions, the case against it increased. In the 90s researchers found that 60-80% of plastic in the ocean would not go away. While it proved more convenient for businesses and consumers, plastic was adversely affecting life under the sea—another problem that can be seen today. 

2010: Plastic begins its decline

The world begins to see that single-use plastics have no place in the circular economy. Plastics organisations such as the British Plastics Federation begint to work with stakeholder to achieve a circular plastics economy, and reduce leakage of plastic waste into the environment.

2020: The move to biodegradable packaging 

From the late 2010s to the present, exciting new alternative packaging concepts begin to emerge, such as biodegradable bottles, liquid packaging solutions, and alternative materials, such as starch-based polymers. The fast-food sector makes the switch to cardboard and paper packaging during the spike in food delivery during COVID-19.


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