From Plastic Fantastic to a Waste Quagmire

Charting the history of plastic packaging can lead to new insights on how to manage it.

From food packaging, to contact lenses and credit cards, plastic is used in almost every aspect of daily life. How did it become such a ubiquitous material in just a few decades?

Professor Gay Hawkins, director of engagement at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, is investigating the history of plastic packaging and how it has transformed food production, markets and waste streams. Her insights can be used to develop better strategies for managing plastic waste and reducing our reliance on plastic packaging.

“Just like the Iron Age and Bronze Age, the 20th century can be thought of as the Plastics Age,” says Hawkins. “It’s the material that has defined our culture.”

While most research on plastics focusses on unravelling its environmental impacts, Hawkins is exploring how plastic became a normal part of everyday life and the factors that shaped our reliance on it.

“Plastic has had an unbelievably profound impact on how we live, and our environment,” says Hawkins. “I wanted to understand how it became so popular.”

To trace the emergence of plastic over the last century, Hawkins delved into the history of the material and how it was promoted to the public. Before 1950, food was packaged in glass, cardboard, paper or metal. But the development of light and flexible thermoplastics — plastics that can be moulded using heat — heralded a new era of food products. Fresh fruit and vegetables were covered in cling wrap on polystyrene trays, coffee was served in Styrofoam cups and polyethylene bottles replaced cartons of milk.

Need to know

  • Gay Hawkins is investigating the history of plastic packaging.
  • The rise in plastic packaging transformed attitudes towards food and freshness.
  • ‘Naked’ food needs to be normalised again to reduce waste.

With the advent of plastic packaging came various tactics to convince the public of its virtues and life-changing uses. In post-World War II Australia, Hawkins says that the transition to plastic was driven by promotional material from the fast-growing plastics industry.

Ads and articles in newspapers and women’s magazines touted plastic as a new ‘miracle’ material. Cling wrap promised to keep food fresh, and frozen goods sealed in plastic packaging were promoted as convenient and economical.

Plastic industry newsletters also began landing on the desks of executives of food production and packaging companies. They promoted plastic as a superior industrial material that would open new pathways for circulating goods.

“It completely changed our perceptions of food, freshness and cleanliness,” says Hawkins. “People thought food was better and safer in plastic, but it also changed how we managed waste.”

But not everyone was sold on the idea of plastic-wrapped cheese sticks and frozen peas. A 1972 article in The Canberra Times titled ‘Women Drop Wraps’ revealed that a group of women unwrapped their newly bought groceries and dumped the packaging in front of the supermarket in protest.

The article reported that the demonstration aimed to educate people about unnecessary and polluting packaging and to offer alternatives to carting home huge quantities of plastic and cardboard packaging with the weekly shopping.

While plastic remains pervasive in daily life, efforts to reduce its detrimental impacts have gained momentum in recent years, from supermarkets banning single-use plastic bags, to popularising reusable coffee cups.

Hawkins points out that removing plastic isn’t the only work to be done to tackle wasteful habits. Just as the public became accustomed to throwing plastic packaging away decades ago, there is a need to normalise ‘naked’ foods once again.

“It’s a matter of reconfiguring cultural attitudes so that people aren’t disturbed by the absence of plastic,” says Hawkins.

Meet the Academic | Professor Gay Hawkins

Professor Gay Hawkins has played a key role in the development of Australian cultural studies as an interdisciplinary and philosophically informed practice of social reflection. Her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees were in sociology but she has worked in the field of cultural and media studies since the 1990s. More recently her work has focussed on science and technology studies. She is recognised for research in three distinct areas: the relations between culture and governance, environmental humanities, and economic sociology, markets and materiality. She brings to this research theoretical and empirical approaches that are concerned with the intersections between everyday cultural and material practices and political processes. In 1993 she published From Nimbin to Mardi Gras: constructing community arts, the first book to examine the emergence and impacts of 'community arts' as a field of governmental action. In 2008 she published a major collaborative study of the development of Australia’s unique Special Broadcasting Service with Professor Ien Ang and Lamia Daboussy. The SBS Story: the challenge of cultural diversity documented the complex processes whereby diversity was made a matter of public representation, interest and debate.

Credit

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council.

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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.