Skip to main content


In 1907, chemist Leo Baekeland introduced the world to his invention known as Bakelite—the world’s first fully synthetic plastic—marking the beginning of the Polymer Age. For better and worse, this new material has revolutionized nearly every aspect of human life. As one of the most versatile, affordable, and durable substances ever produced, plastic provides tremendous benefits and economic value.

But the plastic revolution has also come at a considerable cost. The benefits of broadly used plastic materials are diminished by the mounting environmental impacts of plastic debris in our air, land, waterways, and oceans. The long term effects of human consumption of microplastics—increasingly found in our food and drinking water—remain unclear.

In its effort to address the diverse challenges related to the global use and accumulation of plastics, the Trienens Institute is bringing together experts from across Northwestern as well as collaborators from academic, civic, NGO, and industrial partner institutions.

Plastics by the Numbers

Billion metric tons - amount of plastic generated worldwide since 1950.
Amount of plastic ever produced that has accumulated landfills or the environment.
Year when plastic will exceed fish in the ocean by mass.
Million metric tons - amount of plastic that enter the world's oceans every year.
Million metric tons - amount of plastic waste produced every year.

Source: United Nations