History and Plastics

Advertisements for celluloid, a very early plastic, touted its environmental benefits as the savior of elephants and tortoises.

William Helfand Collection, CHF Collections. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

While the pilot run of The Case of Plastics went quite well, we found that students did not often incorporate the history of plastics into their arguments. In revisions, we have therefore moved to include history more explicitly and show students the importance of history in modern debates. 

Students will now receive game materials that emphasize the historical background of their positions. For instance, students arguing that plastics are a beneficial alternative to less-sustainable resources will find historical support beginning in the 19th century. John Wesley Powell’s celluloid replaced ivory and tortoiseshell and saved countless animals, a claim advertisers used to promote celluloid. “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale,” an 1878 celluloid ad proclaims, “so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts, and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.” Students given this information must then consider how and when plastics lost their positive reputation and what long-term environmental benefits they may have had. 

History informs many other aspects of the plastics debate. World War II–era innovations spurred economic growth and improved the standard of living for many people. Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” campaign changed how Americans understood waste. As people renounced littering, they also began to perceive plastic trash in the environment as pernicious. In the 1970s OSHA addressed toxicity concerns by limiting the exposure of factory workers manufacturing polyvinyl chloride to carcinogenic chemicals. 

With these stories and more at the forefront of their reading, students will begin to see that arguments and debates about plastics have a long history and to understand that history is key to finding solutions.

Posted In: Project Development

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