The slick, transparent film we now know as plastic wrap was originally a mistake of chemistry, a residue clinging stubbornly to the bottom of a beaker in a 1930s laboratory. The military originally used it to line boots and planes. Today, consumers around the world, and the grocery stores they shop in, have more than a hundred brands of the super water-resistant substance to choose from.
Plastic wrap is popular in the United States. One industry research group found that, in the past six months, nearly 80 million Americans had used at least one roll of plastic wrap, but more than five million Americans had gone through more than 10 million boxes. Commercial uses in supermarkets and shipping account for the additional three million tons of plastic wrap companies expect to make in 2019.
Though the portable, cheap wrap keeps leftovers fresh for longer, there are several catches: Plastic wrap contributes to the larger plastic pollution crisis, it’s difficult to recycle, and it’s made from potentially harmful chemicals, especially as they break down in the environment.
“If you look back to the 1950s when we didn’t have as effective food storage like we do now, you can see why it was so popular,” says Leah Bendell , a marine ecotoxicologist from Simon Fraser University.
“We didn’t have plastic 70 years ago, and then in the post-war boom, you had chemists who were going to provide us with this brave new world. Pesticides, herbicides, and plastics were a big part of that,” she says.