Single Use Plastic – A History

The word “plastic” has been a part of everyday language worldwide for an assortment of materials since the 1930’s, yet was first invented and used widely before then. In fact, in 1862 the first plastic (Parkesine) was created from cellulose, which was made from plants meaning it was bio-based! We just stepped into the 2020’s, where plastic has morphed significantly and is effecting our environment and wildlife more than ever. I will share with you the history of a few significant plastics that contribute to our everyday lives.

Swiss engineer Jacques Brandenberger invented a machine to produce mass amounts of Cellophane, a recognized word “coined…by combining cellulose with diaphane, the French word for “translucent” (Britannica, p.1).  This odor resistant, moisture proof, tough plastic was created after Brandenberger had an idea for a tablecloth that would repel liquid instead of soak into cloth. To this day, cellophane is still widely used for packaging materials such as cigarettes, candies and foods where the consumer can directly see the product before purchasing. (Nobel, p.1, 2017)

A chemical lab worker by the name of Ralph Wiley discovered polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), what is now most commonly known as SaranTM (Saran Wrap) when he couldn’t scrub a vial clean. Dow Chemical Lab researchers made this product a “greasy, dark green film…[and] the military sprayed it on fighter planes to guard against salty sea spray and carmakers used it for upholstery” (Bellis, p.1).  After WW ll, Saran wrap was approved for the packaging of food and “it was offered to the public under the familiar trade name Saran Wrap” (Cengage, p.1, 2019) and can be found in many households today.

Earl Tupper introduced a “miracle” product that was versatile, being that his plastics were being manufactured to help advance the war effort, like most plastics in this age. “Tupper’s first consumer plastic products the Wonderlier® Bowl and Bell Tumbler offered a unique benefit that traditional food containers did not: they were lighter and less likely to break than traditional glass and crockery” (Tupperware Brands, p.1). These products were sold by women who threw “parties”, much like Mary Kay or Norwex, to demonstrate how the “Tupperware” seal works to keep food fresh longer and more attractive to look at than open packaging. These items are a kitchen commodity 60+ years later.

The Take Away

There are many more reusable AND single use plastic items that contribute to our everyday lives such as Ziploc baggies and garbage bags. As you can see, different plastics have been around for decades and continue to add to the “Plastic Soup” and other Ocean pollution. By eliminating the usage of single use plastics, we can work together to help the environment become free of plastic pollution. 

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Sources and further readings:
Cellophane – The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica –

Mary Bellis-

Nobel, Carmen – How Cellophane Changed The Way We Shop For Food, HBS Knowledge – 2017

Plastic Wrap – Cengage, 2019

Heritage – Tupperware

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