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A Brief History: Global Plastic Pollution

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Single-use plastics are a global concern. Where do they come from? Where are they heading?

Plastic Soup: A Global Delicacy illustration
Sick Soup by Tanishk Katalkar

Plastic originated in the mid-19th century as an alternative material to make billiard pool balls in America. Soon enough, it was discovered that plastic was a multifaceted material that can be used to make a wide array of products. Seen as an environmentally friendly option, given how plastic meant there was no need to slaughter animals or extract materials through tedious processes, plastic saw a dramatic increase in popularity and production in the 20th century, especially after the world wars and the great depression. Envisioned as the most groundbreaking invention of the time and the building block for the future, plastic started substituting materials in every industry - steel in automobiles, wood in furniture and paper and glass in packaging, etc. - and became a household staple commodity.

The optimistic light did not shine for long on plastics as soon the perspectives of the public started shifting to viewing them as hazardous and cheap commodities. The first recorded plastics found in the ocean date back to 1960 which brought to the attention of American society the potential dangers of this product.

The world today is still made of plastics. It is admissible that certain plastic innovations have their own distinguished utility - take surgical gloves for instance. But the major cause for concern today is single-use plastic waste. Single-use plastic is a plastic item that is made to be used once and then disposed of. Designed to be tossed away in minutes, single-use plastics are a red flag example of throwaway culture glaring right into our faces.

It’s a commonly known fact that single-use plastic is a non-biodegradable substance that remains on the planet for centuries. Today, around 400 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year around the globe. The majority of this plastic waste is in the single-use category that is majorly used for packaging.

An additional concern is that 98% of single-use plastic is made out of fossil fuels and petrochemicals. Though in the late 20th century (when plastic waste started becoming a concern) recycling was introduced as a solution, the current reality is that less than 10% of the waste is actually ever recycled. The remaining waste is:

  • lost to the environment where it pollutes the land and water bodies by degrading into microplastics,

  • Burned, releasing toxic chemical fumes into the air,

  • dumped in landfills that poisons the soil and the groundwater table.

Aside from these broad effects, single-use plastics directly affect the biodiversity of the planet. Because most of the plastics find their way into the ocean and marine bodies, the aquatic species either ingest these floating toxins or get entangled into larger pieces, consequently leading to their death. Whates have been sighted in the past years lying dead on shores, with stomachs full of plastic. Scientists estimate that by the year 2050, the oceans will be home to more plastics than marine life.

For humans too, the ingestion of microplastics through food grown on land using infested groundwater and soil or seafood causes intestinal problems, infertility and fatal problems like cancerous growths.

The United States of America holds the first place in producing the most plastic pollution in the world, followed by India and China. However, China, the Philippines and India hold the record for the most plastic pollution in the oceans. But the analysis does not end at comparing countries. There are several corporations that own the title of the worst plastic polluters in the world and are guilty of exacerbating the problem through indifferent business practices. Companies like Coca-cola and PepsiCo have been the highest-ranking plastic polluters of the world for several years in a row, with their pledges of reducing plastic waste and aiding waste collection processes failing to meet the desired results. Other prized holders of the ‘Top Plastic Polluters’ title are Nestlé, Mars, Colgate, and Unilever, among others.

The efforts to ban single-use plastics have been a common echo across the globe with the rising environmental awareness among people and deepening climate change effects. In the last decade, several countries have imposed full or partial bans on single-use plastic. The most notable among them are the USA, Kenya, New Zealand, Canada, France, etc. India is set to impose a complete ban on single-use plastics in 2022.

The future of plastics comes with a question mark with it today. No matter how threatening plastic might be, its utility in modern life is immeasurable. A plethora of the things we use today are made from plastic, and it’s because of plastic, that a lot of the population enjoys a higher standard of living, and can access products that would have otherwise been limited to the wealthiest, most privileged classes of society. Several scientists and innovators are in pursuit of making a more sustainable alternative to plastic that is made from plants and not fossil fuels. On the other hand, there are efforts to make systemic changes to make recycling, waste management, and waste control more efficient, strict and functional.


Giddings, D. (2021, March 29). NCC: Land Lines - The effects of single-use plastic on the environment. Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Lindwall, C. (2020, January 9). Single-Use Plastics 101. NRDC.

Obermeyer, C., & Carney, M. (2021, February 18). The History and Proliferation of Single-Use Plastic Products — CleanUp News. CleanUp News.

Science History Institute. (n.d.). History and Future of Plastics.

UNEP. (n.d.). Visual Feature | Beat Plastic Pollution.

Waste Management World. (n.d.). WMW | The top plastic polluters 2021.

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