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Lifting the Lid on Plastic: How the “greatest thing since sliced bread” became toast

Plastic was once hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was seen as the miracle product that transformed modern living more than any other invention.

Today, the headlines have a different focus. They now shout about plastics polluting our planet. In actual fact, plastics are not inherently bad and, as well as having a wide range of important uses, they play a vital role in solving many environmental problems.

And a step into the history of plastic also reveals it may have been seen as the greatest thing BEFORE sliced bread as it predates the 1928 baking invention by a number of years.

The British Plastic Foundation (BPF) reports that, in 1862, Parkesine, the predecessor of celluloid, was shown at the Great International Exhibition in London. 

Parkesine, developed by the British inventor Alexander Parkes, was made from a mixture of chloroform and castor oil. It was described as “a substance hard as horn, but as flexible as leather, capable of being cast or stamped, painted, dyed or carved”.

The first plastic made from synthetic materials was Bakelite. Based on chemical reactions of phenol with formaldehyde, it was invented in New York in 1907, by Leo Baekeland who coined the term “plastics”.

Helped shape the outcome of World War 2

The BPF timeline also reveals that, in 1926, Harrods displayed “new coloured thermosetting plastic tableware”. And that polyethylene was “accidentally” discovered by ICI in 1933. Little did these early pioneers realise that their chance discovery would lead to the making of billions of polythene carrier bags and then become a symbol of environmental devastation.

It is also worth noting that World War 2 may have had a different outcome if it wasn’t for polythene, which today accounts for more than 30 per cent of the plastics market. Polythene was used in radar cables and gave Britain a significant advantage, particularly in long-distance air warfare. 

In fact, many of the materials developed for war applications were used within food packaging after the war.

A brief history of food packaging includes:

  • Cellophane was invented in 1908.
  • Scotch Cellulose Tape first appeared in 1930.
  • Tupperware was developed in 1946.
  • In the same year, plastic bottles started to become popular.
  • The first plastic sandwich bag on a roll was introduced in 1957.
  • Ziploc bags were introduced in 1968.
  • The mid-80s saw aluminium trays being replaced by plastic, microwaveable trays.
  • 1996 brought wide usage of salad-in-a-bag packaging.
  • Plastics being used in  a variety of ways due to the benefits of:

o    Product protection.
o    Preservation.
o    Waste prevention.
o    Ease of transportation.
o    Information display.

Keeping food safe and fresh

In general, plastics are used in a multitude of ways to assist every-day living. As reported by ChemicalSafetyFacts.org:

“Versatile plastics inspire innovations that help make life better, healthier and safer every day. Plastics are used to make bicycle helmets, child safety seats, and airbags in cars. 

“They’re in the phones, televisions, computers, and other electronic equipment that makes modern life possible. They’re in the roofs, walls, flooring, and insulation that make homes and buildings energy efficient.”

Plastic is one of the BBC’s “50 Things that Made the Modern Economy” in its podcast series. Presenter Tim Harford says: “Despite growing evidence of environmental problems, plastic has benefits that aren’t just economic, but environmental, too. Vehicles made with plastic parts are lighter and so use less fuel. Plastic packaging keeps food fresh for longer and so reduces waste. “

And what would we do without plastics in medicine, health, and wellbeing? For example:

•    Fluid bags.
•    Hearing aids.
•    Heart valves, hip and knee joints.
•    Prosthetic limbs.
•    Spectacle lenses.
•    Syringes and tubing.

Of course, the problem with plastic cannot be ignored, especially as not all of it can currently be recycled. 

Eight days’ lifetime of a food tray

Single-use plastics account for 40 per cent of the plastic produced every year. And, as National Geographic has revealed: “Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”

Lars Gade Hansen, CEO of leading food packaging manufacturer Faerch Group, recently said: “The lifetime of a food tray is as little as eight days, what a waste! We are on a mission to change that. We are establishing circularity in the food industry. 

“We can recycle materials and extend the lifetime to 100 years. This is a concrete example of how we make a sustainable impact. Not tomorrow or in 10 years, we are ready and it happens already today.”

Similar messages are resonating throughout the food packaging industry with circularity being a strong theme.

It will be music to ears of the public at large who are still reeling at what has been described as the “Blue Planet effect”. 

Recycling, reuse, and refilling

Viewers of David Attenborough's Blue Planet 2 saw heart-rending footage of how plastic is slowly killing our sea creatures, from albatross parents feeding plastic waste to their chicks to turtles and dolphins being harmed by the plastic that is thrown away.

The Blue Planet effect has led to people around the world waging war on plastic waste. Already the UK Government has earmarked a £61.4 million fund to stem the tide of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. 

And all the major supermarkets are pushing initiatives around recycling, reuse, and refilling. This is covered later in our “Lifting the Lid on Plastic” series.

It’s evident the “greatest thing since sliced bread” has, for the moment, become toast with a number of consumers. However, another message is gaining clarity … that, as long as waste is eliminated and material is reused, plastic is an extremely valuable, important, and useful resource in a circular economy.


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