From the invention of plastic in the late 1800s to the introduction of Tupperware® in the 1940s to the latest innovations in easy-dipping ketchup packets, plastics have played an integral role in smart packaging solutions that help us do more with less. Whether it’s your new electronic gadget, your favorite beauty product, or what you’re eating for lunch, plastic packaging helps protect your purchases until you’re ready to use them, and that helps to reduce waste and save energy.
The first manmade plastic was unveiled by Alexander Parkes at the Great International Exhibition in London. This material – dubbed Parkesine – was derived from cellulose. Yes – the first plastic was bio-based! It could be molded when heated and retained its shape when cooled.
Swiss textile engineer Dr. Jacques Edwin Brandenberger created Cellophane, a clear layer of packaging for any product – the first fully flexible, water impermeable wrap. Brandenberger originally aimed to apply a clear flexible film to cloth to make it stain-resistant.
Richard Drew, a young 3M engineer, invented Scotch® Cellulose Tape. Later to be renamed Cellophane Tape, it was an attractive way for grocers and bakers to seal packages.
Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, accidentally discovered another plastic: polyvinylidene chloride which became known as SaranTM. The plastic was first used to protect military equipment and later for food packaging. Saran would cling to almost any material – bowls, dishes, pots and even itself – and became a terrific tool for maintaining the freshness of food at home.
Tupperware® was developed in the USA by Earl Silas Tupper who cleverly promoted his line of polyethylene food containers through a network of housewives who sold Tupperware as a means of making money. Tupperware and other plastic containers with an airtight seal are one of the most notable products in plastic packaging history.
Learn more about the history of polyethylene.
The first major commercial plastic spray bottle was developed by Dr. Jules Montenier, creator of “Stopette”, an underarm deodorant that was dispensed by squeezing its plastic bottle. As sponsor of the popular “What’s My Line” television show, Stopette triggered an explosion in the use of plastic bottles.
The familiar black or green plastic garbage bag (made from polyethylene) was invented by Canadians Harry Wasylyk and Larry Hansen. The new garbage bags, intended for commercial use, were first sold to the Winnipeg General Hospital. They later became popular for home use.
Robert W. Vergobbi patented zipper storage bags. Minigrip licensed them, intending to use them as pencil bags. But it became apparent that the bags could do much more, and Ziploc® bags were introduced in 1968 as food storage bags.The first baggies and sandwich bags on a roll were introduced
Learn more about: recycling plastic bags
Wisconsin manufacturer Geuder, Paeschke and Frey produced the first licensed character lunch box: a lithographed Mickey Mouse on an oval tin with a pull-out tray inside. Plastic was used for the handle and then for the entire box starting in the 1960s.
Engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes created Bubble Wrap® at their company, aptly named Sealed Air Corporation.
In the mid-1950s, Swanson® TV Dinners capitalized on two post-war trends: the popularity of time-saving devices and fascination with the television (more than 10 million TV dinners were sold during the first year of national distribution). The aluminum trays were replaced with plastic, microwavable trays in 1986.
The Society of the Plastics Industry introduced voluntary resin identification coding system that provides a consistent system for identifying plastics resins used in packaging containers.
Salad-in-a-bag packaging (metallocene-catalyzed polyolefins) was introduced, helping to reduce food waste and making it easier to purchase fresh produce.
Learn More: Biodegradable plastics
Flexible plastic tubes for yogurt became available, making it possible to enjoy a tasty, calcium-rich snack on the go.
Polylactic acid (PLA) made from corn is introduced to the packaging market, bringing back bio-based plastic to packaging..
The two liter plastic beverage bottle and the one gallon plastic milk jug reach a milestone in “lightweighting” – both containers shed a third of their weight since they became widely used in the 1970s.
Plastic bottles achieve a 27% recycling rate, reclaiming 2.4 billion pounds of plastic. (More pounds of plastic bottles have been recycled every year since 1990!) And polyethylene plastic bags and wraps achieve a 13% recycling rate, reclaiming 832 million pounds of plastic. (The recycling rate for polyethylene plastic bags and wraps has doubled since 2005.)
Learn how to recycle plastic bags.
MetallyteTM films were introduced to help keep sharp contents (coffee beans, grains, noodles, croutons) fresher by reducing packaging tears. The new films are also lighter than foil-based designs.
Heinz® Dip & SqueezeTM, the first ketchup packaging innovation in 42 years, is a dual function package offering two ways to enjoy ketchup: peel back the lid for easy dipping, or tear off the tip to squeeze onto food. The new packaging makes eating on-the-go more fun and convenient.
Check out more on the history of plastics, and don’t forget about our history of recycling timeline.