Try to go an hour without touching something plastic. Come on, I dare you.

The stuff is everywhere. Think about it. Everything from your toilet seat to the electronic devices you constantly use (sometimes, it’s safe to assume, while likely sitting on said toilet seat) are made of plastic. In fact, try as you might, there’s not much in your day-to-day life that doesn’t contain some trace of plastic.

Mr. McGuire in The Graduate wasn’t messing around when he tells Ben: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word … Plastics.”

But it certainly wasn’t always like this. The mass production of synthetic plastic is a pretty modern innovation. And it has undoubtedly revolutionized society, introducing a huge amount of convenience and affordability, and allowing for the development of things like computers, cell phones and most modern medical advancements.

But our obsession with plastic also comes at a steep cost. Although originally hailed as an innovation to reduce a rapidly industrializing society’s reliance on scarce natural resources, plastic has led to a monumental environmental mess. Worldwide, more 400 million tons of it are churned out annually, generating a huge amount of waste, only about 20 percent of which is recycled or incinerated. The rest either ends up in landfills, where it takes an average of 500 years to decompose and potentially leak pollutants, or in waterways and oceans.

And as this latest Above the Noise episode on microfibers makes clear, that has become a mounting environmental crisis.

Scroll through this timeline for a brief history of how synthetic plastics emerged and came to dominate our lives.

How Plastics Took Over The World and Created an Environmental Mess: A Brief, Disposable History 12 March,2018Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a digital media producer for KQED News. He previously produced The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog. Matthew's written for numerous Bay Area publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. He also taught journalism classes at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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