How Did We Live Before Single-Use Plastic?
We’re so reliant on plastic that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Surprisingly, plastic has only been around for about 115 years. Yet, it has managed to reach places very few humans have reached— like the top of Mount Everest and the bottom of the ocean. No fun!
But even in the 40s and 50s, when plastic was already a thing, waste wasn’t the issue it is today. So, when did it all go wrong? When did plastic turn into a pollution powerhouse?
In this blog, we’re doing a deep dive into life before single-use plastic, with the hopes of learning from the past and applying that to the present. Maybe the solution to our plastic pollution problem starts by going back to the basics.
Let’s dive in!
The Beginning of Disposable Plastic… And of Plastic Pollution.
Plastic was first discovered in the 1800s, but for many years its use was mostly limited to products like appliances, cars, and electronics. Although there was plenty of plastic in the 1950s, something interesting happened at the end of that decade.
The processing of plastics saw huge improvements—making it cheaper to produce and to tap into mass production. This unleashed the disposable plastic boom. Many products that used to be packed in glass or cans were introduced in disposable, single-use plastic.
And the world has never been the same.
Did you know that single-use plastic as we know it has only been around for about 70 years?
Yet, it has managed to pollute even the most pristine and remote areas of our planet. But the problem isn’t plastic. The problem is disposable, short-lived, single-use plastic.
Plastic is actually essential in our lives for medical purposes and technological advances. But the boom of disposable plastics grew so much and so fast that plastic pollution got out of hand. Quickly.
Since 1950, we’ve created more than 9 billion tons of plastic.
And most of this plastic is still sitting somewhere on our planet—whether it’s in the ocean, a landfill, or in our forests and jungles. Plastic pollution is virtually everywhere. But there was an important shift that contributed to the rise of single-use plastic—and it wasn’t plastic.
It was a lifestyle change.
The Mindset Shift
As plastic became cheaper to make and its uses started growing, people’s lifestyles and mindsets about clothing and other products changed.
Before, people used to value their possessions. If a sweater ripped, they would mend it. If something broke, they would fix it. People cooked more and made things from scratch. Their habits included reusing, repurposing, and repairing—no marketing campaigns needed.
But when plastic, and therefore many products made of plastic, like clothing, toys, appliances, and more, became so cheap—they also lost their value in the eyes of the consumer.
Suddenly, it was easier to buy another shirt than to mend it. It was more convenient to buy another toy, instead of fixing the one that broke. It became easier and cheaper to buy more and more things—but they didn’t last.
Products that used to last a long time now broke easily and quickly, forcing (or tricking?) people into buying more. And more.
With time, the mindset shift has fully settled. Most people no longer care about fixing, reusing, or repurposing, because new is easier and more affordable. But is it better?
How can we still get affordable, convenient products without harming the planet? Maybe the past can show us.
Homes in the 1950s
If plastic waste became a real problem at the end of 1950, but plastic had been around for decades…how did they manage it?
These are a few things that were different in homes before plastic pollution:
- Sodas, milk, and any other beverage were packed in glass bottles. And all of them would be returned to be cleaned and reused. No waste was created.
- People ate more seasonal veggies and fruits. If a certain food wasn’t in season, then they’d rely on canned or they would make food preserves when the food was available.
- Many foods like pasta, rice, legumes, and even some vegetables were stored in bulk. Each person would weigh their food in a brown paper bag and carry it home. The paper bag would be reused as a fire starter.
- Meat and chicken were also packed in paper. At restaurants, you would get food served in newspapers or reusable plates. And snacks were also sold in bulk and individually weighed in paper bags.
- Toys were made of wood, metal, or rubber. They were also more simple and many of them engaged kids in active games like jump rope, hula hoops, and pogo sticks.
- Shampoo also came in glass bottles. Detergent and other cleaning supplies were packed in cardboard boxes. Soap usually came in bars and was wrapped in paper.
- Paint, car oil, and other fluid were sold in cans.
These are just a few ways in which people lived a less wasteful life. And interestingly enough, we’re at a point where we’re looking back to those times and trying to learn from them.
Going Back to the Basics
It’s funny how we’re coming full circle with the way we do things. As plastic pollution worsens and a global effort to fight it grows—we’re going back to the basics. Back to simpler ways of consuming products. Back to the unknowingly circular economy that existed back in the day.
Back to reusing and repurposing. Back to appreciating and understanding what goes behind a product. Moving away from disposable and into lasting.
Technology has exponentially grown, causing things to move a bit too fast. But as we have time to reflect on what has been, we have an opportunity to do better moving forward. To learn from our mistakes and correct them.
Although we can’t go back to how things were before plastic pollution, we can borrow some of the habits people had back then and use them for the better.
Tackling Plastic Pollution is as Simple as Reusing
One of the main things people did back in the day was reuse and repurpose. They collected glass jars and use them around the house, reused paper brown bags, and repurposed clothes into kitchen rags.
And that’s one of the best habits we can borrow from them—reusing.
If single-use, disposable plastic is what jumpstarted our plastic pollution problem, one of the solutions is clearly going back to reusing.
- More reusable cups and straws—less disposable ones
- More tote bags—fewer plastic bags
- More paper—less plastic
- More natural materials—less toxic, synthetic ones
If people back in the day were able to live without plastic pollution—we can too. One reusable at a time.