How did plastics master the world of packaging?

08 Feb, 2023

For the past several decades, plastic has been one of humanity's most important inventions. Today we should treat it as a relic. Plastic should be consigned to history, and we should start using new solutions that are simply better and less harmful to our health, life, as well as the environment in general.

Did you know that almost half of plastic is used precisely for the production of packaging, mostly disposable?

Source: Plastic Europe, Raport Tworzywa - Fakty 2021

40% of the plastic produced in the EU is used for packaging and accounts for 36% of municipal solid waste.

How is it that in just a few decades we have become addicted to single-use packaging made of petroleum-based plastics? Why have they become so popular? The reason was and is the numerous advantages of plastics, which make them extremely functional.

Read this article to find out:
  • what is the history of plastics
  • what are the properties of plastics,
  • what benefits they have brought to the packaging industry,
  • why plastics have proven to be a problem.

Packaging before the era of plastics

Reusable packagingUntil a few decades ago, plastic packaging did not exist at all. Before the invention of plastics, other materials such as paper, metal and glass were used. In addition, virtually all of them were used repeatedly.

This state of affairs worked because people did not know the alternative. They had no need for airtight, disposable packaging of most products. Back then, the market looked very different than it does today. It was, of course, much less developed.

  • Local trade in seasonal products prevailed. Exports and imports were not as common then as they are today.
  • Products were transported on a much smaller scale and over much shorter distances.
  • There were not as many requirements for product safety, for example.
  • There was no mass production.
  • There was no online trading.

The history of plastic

Such a way of packing, although it was a much more sustainable option was also not very practical and carried with it many limitations. Remaining with it, we would certainly not live as we do today.

Technology, industry, economy were developing very intensively. People began to look for ways to replace some materials that were, for example, perishable, expensive, difficult to produce or not very accessible.

The alternative materials turned out to be plastics, i.e. the plastic commonly found today. Plastics are called fully synthetic (artificial, man-made, not found in nature) materials. Their manufacture was not at all easy. Surprisingly, nature helped with this.

Attempts to imitate nature - the beginning of polymer plastics

It all started in 1839 with the discovery of natural polymers such as cellulose and starch, which are among the basic building blocks of living organisms. These are macromolecular compounds that consist of repeated units called mers.

Scientists have been modifying natural polymers for a long time, allowing them to obtain new, previously unknown materials such as paper and rubber.

The real breakthrough in the world of materials, however, was the creation of synthetic polymers, or man-made polymers. Because of their physical and chemical processing properties, they proved to be the ideal basis for the production of the plastics commonly known today.

They were readily available and cheap to produce. On top of that, they were characterized by ease of processing, which gave virtually unlimited possibilities for creating completely new artificial materials with specific properties such as high mechanical strength, resistance to high temperatures, resistance to chemicals and many others.

The first plastic

The first fully synthetic material was Bakelite. It was developed around 1907. Bakelite at that time proved to be a real breakthrough in the world of materials. It owed this to its properties. It was lightweight and could be used to make many everyday objects. It was not yet a breakthrough in the world of packaging. However, it was a good start on the road to finding the "perfect" versatile artificial material.

Even before World War II, other types of plastic appeared, such as the nylon commonly used today, as well as polyethylene. In the 1930s, their production began to grow rapidly. However, the revolution was yet to come.

1950 - the plastic revolution

In the second half of the 19th century. It was discovered that plastics could be made extremely easily and cheaply. Basic catalysts were developed, i.e. substances that allowed the conversion of very cheap substrates, coming mainly from the processing of crude oil, into many valuable plastics, including today's most popular polymers: polyethylene and polypropylene. Then their mass production also took off. Catalysts began to be improved, plastic factories were established, and there were more and more of them.

Consequences that no one expected

Unfortunately, all these discoveries and finally the invention of synthetic polymers also turned out to be the beginning of the plastic era of the world. When mass production of plastic began, no one thought about the consequences. It was realized that plastics were the "ideal" material that could replace all other packaging materials used so far: glass, metal, paper, wood. They made it possible to eliminate all the limitations that the previously used materials carried. However, the convenience and new possibilities that plastics have given us come at a price.

Level of global plastic production

Plastic has proven to be too durable a material. Since 1950, mankind has produced more than 9 billion tons of material that will not disappear from our planet and is a serious threat to it. Can the artificial production of such a large amount of synthetic material go unnoticed by the environment and cause no negative effects? Unfortunately, no...Plastik a ekologia

Is plastic packaging harmful to the environment? Plastics have characteristics that make them harmful to the environment:

  • they usually use crude oil, a non-renewable resource, to produce them;
  • they are produced from petrochemical raw materials;
  • they take up to hundreds of years to decompose, or actually are impossible.

Because of this, plastics have a negative impact on, among other things, the ever-increasing problem of environmental pollution, air pollution, the changing climate, and human and animal life and health. Despite the dangers posed by plastics, they are still very popular anyway. Why?

Properties and types of plastics

There are many types of plastics. Each type of plastic has its own unique properties. For example, Polyethylene (PE) - it is abrasion resistant and impermeable to water, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) - it is resistant to chemicals and easy to work with, Polystyrene (PS) - it is lightweight and impact resistant, Polyether (PET) - it is lightweight and resistant to chemicals. Thanks to such diversity, the use of plastics is very wide.Properties and types of plastics

These advantages and characteristics cannot be overlooked

Versatility and wide application.

Plastics have virtually unlimited uses. They are suitable for packaging all kinds of products. They are the answer to the packaging needs of manufacturers in almost all industries.

Increase food safety

They allow products to remain fresh for a longer period of time. Airtight packaging of food products, for example, protects them from getting dirty, wet and from other external factors that can reduce their quality. They also delay the rotting process.

They are lightweight and durable

They perform very well in transportation. Packaging made of plastic protects products without significantly increasing their weight.

Cheap to produce

Their production has proven to be very cheap. Compared to materials such as glass or metal, for example, they are a much cheaper option.

They pulled down people's compulsion to save on materials

It is much more cost-effective to produce new packaging than to focus on recycling plastic - collecting, washing and reusing it. The cheapest and easiest way is to produce new, fresh plastic.

They provided opportunities for the rapid development of the economy.

    Thanks to the low price of plastics and the functionality in terms of transporting and securing products, it was possible to rapidly expand exports and imports, especially of food. This in turn raised the standard of living for many people.

    Plastic packaging has become profitable.

      The last feature is the profitability of plastic. The production of plastic and disposable packaging has itself become an industry that has made and continues to make huge profits. Globally, Pekao analysts estimate the value of the packaging industry at $1 trillion. It's simply not profitable for many people to reduce it.

      Let's not be fooled!

      Plastic in widespread use

      Looking at the advantages of plastic, it is hardly surprising that it has gained so much popularity in the world of packaging. However, it should be remembered that plastic also has a great many disadvantages, which at this point can no longer be ignored. Moreover, it is no longer an irreplaceable material. There are already a lot of eco-friendly, natural plastics on the market, which have the same properties as ordinary petrochemical plastics.

      Trends in the packaging industry: more and more alternatives to plastic

      Packaging without plastic

      Fortunately, in recent years, more and more packaging manufacturers have begun to look for more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic. Today, more and more packaging made from bioplastics is appearing on the market.

      Bioplastics are plastics of natural origin. They are materials that are made from natural, plant-based raw materials. They are biodegradable and environmentally friendly, as they come from renewable sources and do not contain harmful substances. Bioplastics are an alternative to plastic and other synthetic materials, which are one of the biggest sources of environmental pollution.

      Their uniqueness lies in their ability to compost. This means that after using bioplastic packaging, it will decompose into natural compounds that do not threaten the environment - water, carbon dioxide and biomass. It will become compost, which can further enrich the soil.

      Packaging made of bioplastics is practically no different from classic plastic packaging. Usually they are confusingly similar to them and have the same properties.

      Plastic should be consigned to history

      Synthetic plastics have become a fixture in our daily lives over the past few decades. These are materials created from modified natural polymers, which are artificial replacements for materials such as cellulose or starch. In the processing of plastics, modifying additives are used to affect its physical and chemical properties. This makes thermoplastics, such as plastics, very strong and easy to process. These characteristics make them widely used in many fields.

      Plastics have become the dominant material for packaging because of their advantages, such as functionality and low price. They have been one of mankind's most important inventions for the past several decades, but today they are a relic. Their production has spiraled out of control and we now have more than 9 billion tons of plastic in the world, seriously endangering the environment. Like most inventions, single-use plastic should be consigned to history, and we should start using new solutions that are simply better and less harmful to our health, life, and the environment as a whole.


      Plastic Europe, Tworzywa - Fakty 2021.

      Our World in Data, Plastic Pollution,

      British Plastics Federation, History of Plastic., Historia plastiku. "Ziegler i Natta nie przypuszczali, że tworząc wspaniały wynalazek, po latach dostarczą kłopot".

      European Commission, European Green Deal: Putting an end to wasteful packaging, boosting reuse and recycling