Plastic Today and Plastic Forever: The History of Excessive Plastic Usage in America

We have too much plastic waste and too few people who care. How did we get here?


Jonathan Chng / Unsplash

As of 2023, the total amount of plastic produced each year weighs approximately half the weight of the human population around the world. According to The Natural Resources Defense Council, half of that plastic is single-use.

There is plastic all around us, from the packages we buy, to rotting landfills that we ignore, and in the food that we eat. According to Future Agenda, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. Unfortunately, there are no signs that the plastic consumption in America will slow down anytime soon. 

Throughout the plastic life cycle, large amounts of greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and can lead to certain respiratory diseases in people due to smog and air pollution. The CIEL reports that, by 2050, carbon dioxide levels could rise to 2.8 gigatons, approximately 615 coal plants’ worth.

Plastic poses numerous dangers  not only to our health, but to marine life and the ecosystem as a whole. Harmful chemicals can be found in plastic such as endocrine disruptors, which can lead to cancer, reproductive problems, and hormonal imbalances.

Additionally, plastic never truly biodegrades, but rather breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics. People can ingest microplastics, as plants absorb them through their roots and fish consume them in oceans. Microplastics are also present in the air, can alter temperature, and even affect climate change. Over time, microplastics can accumulate in major organs, such as the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys.  

There are very few studies focused on microplastics, and the long term health effects for humans are as yet unknown. According to a 2018 study from Scientific American, fish exposed to microplastics were shown to have lower levels of growth and reproduction.

To cause positive change, we must understand how plastic became so prevalent in the first place. 

In New York, 1907, Leo Baekeland created the first fully synthetic plastic, intended as a substitute for ivory, a desirably durable material unethically sourced from elephant tusks. Over 100 years later, plastic became a leading material in the manufacturing and production industry. Known for its durability and pliability, 380 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. 

The ever-growing popularity of plastic can be traced back to World War II. Many new plastic innovations were made during that period, particularly polyethylene. Created in England to insulate radar cabling in airplanes, polyethylene gave the country a great advantage against the Axis Powers, as it allowed airplanes to be lighter and more aerodynamic than ever. After the war, plastic became a symbol of progress and modernity. It was an affordable, lightweight alternative to traditional materials like metal and glass.

Unfortunately, plastic was not entirely positive. Plastic pollution was first discovered in the ocean by scientists between the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the Sargasso Sea, scientists reported spotting small plastic particles, which are labeled microplastics today. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s when Americans started becoming concerned about plastic’s harmful effects on the environment. 

The origins of the popular phrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” are not clear, but many believe it started in 1976, after the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed. The RCRA granted the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to govern the disposal of hazardous waste, making it one of the first of its kind.

Many Americans may not be aware how influential large oil and gas companies have been in the recycling plastic campaigns. From the 1980s and through the ‘90s, oil and gas companies were close to facing plastic bans. To prevent those bans from being put in place, they encouraged recycling. In the present, recycling is encouraged everywhere, from classrooms to social media.

Although many milk jugs, yogurt containers, and water bottles have the same three chasing-arrows symbol, that does not guarantee they’ll be recycled. Recent studies have shown it is more economically efficient for companies to produce more plastic rather than recycle it. The symbol is purely a marketing strategy. Indirectly, recycling campaigns encourage more people to purchase plastic, as they believe there is no significant damage in larger use.

In an interview for the CBC, former board member of the National Recycling Coalition, Coy Smith states, “Our own customers … they would flat out say, ‘It says it’s recyclable right on it.’ And I’d be like, ‘I can’t give this away. There’s no one that would even take it if I paid them to take it.'” 

It is also worth noting that recycling has its limits. Plastic cannot be recycled more than once or twice, as it becomes less durable. Additionally, consumers regularly confuse recyclable materials from the non-recyclable ones, leading to contamination. Many popular items cannot be recycled, such as food wrappers, plastic straws, eating utensils, plastic bags, and takeout containers. Those commonly assumed recyclable materials are eventually placed in landfills or end up in our oceans. 

Over time, the blame of plastic pollution has shifted away from industries and towards the consumers. Consumers are the ones encouraged to adjust their lifestyles by buying reusable water bottles and using paper straws instead of plastic ones. 

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags entirely. California followed suit in 2014 and now, more than 200 towns and cities have plastic bag bans in place. For the majority of the bans, consumers are required to pay about $0.10 per paper/recyclable bag. All of the costs and responsibility for excessive plastic bag usage are unfairly directed towards consumers as a result. 

A more efficient way to tackle the problem of plastic is by targeting the true source: large oil and gas companies. 

The solution seems very simple, yet the execution in the real-world is anything but. There is no incentive for corporations to limit their plastic usage or utilize reusable materials. Plastic is known for being cheap, sanitary, and versatile. By shifting their supply towards other materials, industries would lose profit and have to entirely restructure their markets. 

Alternative options for plastic like bioplastics are more expensive, harder to produce, and not all are biodegradable. A study from the University of Pittsburgh actually found that bioplastics produce greater amounts of pollution than traditional plastic due to pesticides, fertilizers, and land use.

There are currently no federal regulations restricting single-use plastic in the United States. In fact, a third of U.S. laws prevent any plastic bans from being put in place. 

At this point, it may seem pointless for the general public to use less plastic. One person’s reduced plastic usage won’t drastically improve the environment. However, not all hope is lost. A simple choice such as buying a reusable bag can make enough change to motivate those around you to follow suit, and a chain reaction can set off. 

A Conservation Biologist and Ocean Debris Specialist at Ocean Conservancy, Dr. Nicholas Mallos once said, “We should not forget that we as consumers, each of our decisions that we make in the market place send very real messages to retailers and the larger industry. We may take a conscious decision not to buy something, because of the waste package or because of the excess materials used. That is a direct economic signal we send. So it is not just about the feel-good or inspiring messages we’re sending to others, (which are absolutely critical) but we can also send a very real economic message through our decisions in the market place.”

Even though major corporations and the U.S. government fail to take in consideration the harmful effects of plastic, that doesn’t mean we, the consumers, should do the same. According to Stanford University, recycling one ton of plastic saves 5,774 Kwh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTUs of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. Spreading awareness and necessary information can travel to government officials and make much-needed changes. As evidenced by the plastic bag ban in San Francisco, it only takes one party to stand up to affect change.

There is some truth to the common phrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” So, there’s no reason why it can’t start with us.

To cause positive change, we must understand how plastic became so prevalent in the first place.