PLASTICS are, as we all know, a ubiquitous presence in the modern world. Even as I write this article, I am typing on the plastic keyboard of a laptop computer that is constructed, primarily, of plastic.

In order to move the cursor on the screen, I reach for a plastic mouse. I hear the ping of an incoming electronic message and I pick up my smartphone, which is, of course, made largely of plastic.

The Collins dictionary defines plastic as “a material which is produced from oil by a chemical process and which is used to make many objects.” In its examples of how to use the word in a sentence, the dictionary offers: “A lot of the plastics that carmakers are using cannot be recycled.”

There’s the rub. Whereas, in the mid-20th century, there was general enthusiasm for plastics, today the word “plastic” is synonymous with the pollution of our oceans, waterways, countryside, urban spaces and, even, (thanks to microplastics) our bodies.

Increasing awareness of non-recyclable plastics and the mass manufacture of single use plastics – not least as containers for everything from mineral water to household detergents – has turned this ubiquitous material from a social good to an ecological hazard. The process of that transformation – and the subtleties, contradictions and challenges it contains – forms the central core of Plastic: Remaking Our World, the fascinating new exhibition at the V&A museum in Dundee.

The exhibition charts the evolution of plastics from their beginnings in the early-to-mid-19th century, with the manufacture of materials using naturally occurring substances. For instance, gutta-percha was extracted from tree bark by means of boiling and used to protect the copper wires in undersea cables.

From there, we are taken through the emergence of celluloid movie film (in the late-1800s) and Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, (in 1907) to the explosion in applications of plastics throughout the 20th century.

As one would expect of a great design museum such as the V&A, the show emphasises not only the history, applications and urgent ecological challenges of plastics, but also the aesthetics of the mind-bogglingly diverse array of objects that have been made from them.

For instance, a smoker’s cabinet (1916) designed by none other than the great Glaswegian architect, designer and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh, uses striking yellow plastic inlays as a decorative accompaniment to a piece of wooden furniture. The “Frankfurt” table telephone (1928/29) is just one of numerous objects in the exhibition that seem to strive to accommodate William Morris’s famous injunction: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

One is struck by how – during the early-20th century revolution in applications of plastics – the material is often used to impersonate natural materials, such as wood (in furniture) and metal (in military equipment). A pair of tortoiseshell eye glasses is a particularly nice reminder of how early plastic design combined form and function in a wonderfully innovative, practical, aesthetically pleasing whole.

The room explaining the role played by plastics in the Second World War is particularly interesting. From aerodynamic cockpits for fighter planes, through nylon parachutes to synthetic clothing (which helped to alleviate the pressure of clothes rationing), plastics changed the experience of war considerably, both for combatants and civilians.

Interestingly, the embracing of the modern functions of plastics in war technologies was followed, in the three decades after the war, by their being celebrated in domestic design. Instead of plastic impersonating natural materials in household objects, it was now promoted for its own futuristic aesthetic qualities.

Museum visitors of a certain age will remember the craze for “space age” objects in the home in the 1960s and ‘70s. Finnish designer Eero Aarnio’s “Ball Chair” (1963) is a particularly striking example.

A large sphere of white plastic on a stand, the chair has a brilliant red, padded and cushioned interior into which a person is invited to sit and listen to music via the inlaid speakers. An up-to-date version of the chair, which connects to the internet, is available.

The postwar celebration of plastic as plastic was exemplified by the launch of a series of iconic products. The Tupperware kitchen storage range, for instance, speaks to the 1970s as loudly as fondue, the European cultural appropriation of the kaftan and Mike Leigh’s stage and screen comedy Abigail’s Party.

However, the most iconic product (and the most exemplary of the unity of form and function) is, arguably, Lego. Taking its name from the Danish phrase “leg godt” (meaning “play well”), this plastic building and design system has seen off a series of challengers over the decades and enjoyed a 21st-century resurgence, from movie-related toys to its own films and computer games.

The exhibition does a fabulous job of visualising and explaining all of these developments, and much more besides. However, in the “Plastic Lab” (in which children are encouraged to think about the environmental impact of plastics and to engage in their own recycling projects) and in the concluding rooms, the exhibition (which is supported by Zero Waste Scotland) is notable for its crucial ecological dimension.

The section on the fantastic role plastics continue to play in medical innovation underlines the show’s unambiguous message that we cannot, and should not want to, turn the clock back to the days before plastic. At least as strong, however, is the exhibition’s detailing of the frightening growth in the manufacture, and reckless disposal, of single use plastics.

A recreation of a plastic-strewn beach is a powerful visual reminder of the fact that hyper-commercialism’s culture of disposability is, literally, unsustainable. Indeed, a series of graphs charting the growth in global plastic production and its inextricable connection to oil production, gives one yet another reason (tins of soup chucked at a Van Gogh painting notwithstanding) to support the message (if not the methods) of the Just Stop Oil protestors.

Smartly curated, beautifully presented, thoroughly engaging and ecologically conscientious, this exhibition is as impressive as it is timely.

Plastic: Remaking Our World is at V&A Dundee until February 5, 2023: