How did we live before plastics were invented?


It was not long back that a person asked me at a conference: How did we live before plastics? Or perhaps the person meant “How could we have lived before plastics?”.

Either way, I liked the question.

One, because it is a question that few people actually think of. Two, because it is such a challenging question to answer!

Surely, humans lived on this planet before plastics were invented? They ought to have – because the first synthetic plastics came to market only around 1910. The first ever man-made plastic (from cellulose) was invented only in the 1860s. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years technically, the species homo sapiens has been around for at least 200,000 years.

OK, I have made my point – we have been around for far longer than have been plastics. How did we live without them? Understanding this aspect will perhaps give us insights on how we could live with less plastics in future too?

Before I go on, I should make this distinction: This post is not about all plastics. For instance, it is not about engineering plastics that we find in our cars and computers – these plastics serve a different purpose, and result far less, if any, pollution in our land and oceans.

Specifically, the question I am posing is: How did we live without using the disposable plastic items that we today use in almost all walks of life?

Now, let me put on my thinking cap and try out my best answer.

How indeed did we live before plastics were invented?

We Used Alternatives

We used stuff that just satisfied our need instead of catering to our greed. Interestingly, nature has provided a lot many earth-friendly materials to lead a reasonably comfortable life with these materials alone:

  • We used paper for packaging things that did not require plastic in the first place
  • We used cloth bags and other civilized things for carrying most things around
  • Where fluid transportation was involved, we used metal containers.
  • A whole lot of cooking items and cutlery (plates, cups, forks and spoons and knives…) were also made of metal or other non plastic items such as glass, paper or even more natural things – for instance, where I live (South India), we still use banana leaves as our “plates” during many festivals and religious functions, and even at times, at weddings.
  • In order to protect items from being affected by moisture, we usually carried them or stored them in metal containers.

We Led a Different Lifestyle

Our lifestyles evolve based on the environment and constraints. If we had no plastics, we led a lifestyle that simply did not require plastics!

  • Most food was home cooked, so the concept of take-aways and the consequent need for plastic was not there.
  • Many of the cleaning items (including personal cleaning items such as nappies for kids), were made from paper or cloth, and the cloth items were washed and reused.
  • We did not have mobile phones (leave alone smartphones), so we needed that much less plastic for the phones themselves and for their covers.

We Were More Disciplined in Our Habits

When we have to make-do with less, we become disciplined. When we had no plastic, we had habits that were by default eco-friendly – be it:

  • Carrying our own bags for shopping
  • Reusing things instead of dumping them after every use
  • Keeping things safe from moisture instead of needing material to protect them from moisture

What I have provided above is only a sampling, but I guess if you think along these lines, you will be able to come up with a lot many more examples of how humans lived without in the pre-plastic era!

Of course, without plastic we could not do a whole lot of things more comfortably (carrying water in metal containers would have been a lot heavier for instance), but let’s just say that we just about managed to lead a decent, civilized life without plastics.

The bigger question of course is – Will we be able to live a life anymore without plastics?

What are your thoughts?

By the way, in my village, even today, folks live with very little plastic. A good amount of stuff gets packaged in paper; you will find hardly any plastic water bottles – water is stored and served mostly in metal containers. But then, their lifestyles are different – very different – from those of the urban folks.

Whether the lifestyles of these rural folk are better than those of the urban creatures like us is however a question whose answer really depends on who it is asked to!

Some interesting links on this topic

  • Living without plastic is possible, but expensive – Link
  • Life without Plastic store – find a whole range of alternatives to plastic products here – Link
  • 100 steps to a plastic free world – Link
  • Life without plastic – a detailed anecdote of a gripping real-life experiment – Link
  • Can we live without plastic? – A panel of experts at the National Building Museum, USA talks about the life cycle of plastic; the role of green chemistry in eliminating hazardous materials; and new alternative materials – Link
How did we live before plastics were invented? - Cleantech Guide