Authors: Susan Freinkel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Copyright Â© 2011 by Susan Freinkel
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Freinkel, Susan, date.
Plastic : a toxic love story / Susan Freinkel.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Plastics. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Excerpt from "Plastic" from
Unincorporated Persons in the Late Hondo Dynasty
Tony Hoagland. Copyright Â© 2010 by Tony Hoagland. Reprinted with the permission
of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
For Eli, Isaac, and Moriah
I wonder if it would have done any good then
If I had walked over and explained a few things to them
About how it is so much easier to stretch than
which accounts for some of the strain imposed on
the late 20th-century self...
â Tony Hoagland, "Plastic"
1950, a Philadelphia toy company came out with a new accessory for electric-train enthusiasts: snap-together kits of plastic buildings for a place it called Plasticville, U.S.A. Sets of plastic people to populate the town were optional.
It started as a sleepy, rural place where trains might roll past red-sided barns to pull into a village with snug Cape Cod homes, a police department, a fire station, a schoolhouse, and a quaint white church with a steeple. But over the years, the product line spread into a bustling burb of housing tracts filled with two-story Colonials and split-level ranch houses and a Main Street that boasted a bank, a combination hardware store/pharmacy, a modern supermarket, a two-story hospital, and a town hall modeled on Philadelphia's historic Independence Hall. Eventually Plasticville even gained a drive-in motel, an airport, and its own TV station, WPLA.
Today, of course, we all live in Plasticville. But it wasn't clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly revised my plan. I would spend the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic.
Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page in my Penway Composition Book (which itself had to be cataloged as partly plastic, given its synthetic binding, as did my well-sharpened no. 2 pencil, which was coated with yellow paint that contained acrylic). Here's some of what I wrote down as I made my way through my early-morning routine:
Alarm clock, mattress, heating pad, eyeglasses, toilet seat, toothbrush, toothpaste tube and cap, wallpaper, Corian counter, light switch, tablecloth, Cuisinart, electric teakettle, refrigerator handle, bag of frozen strawberries, scissors handle, yogurt container, lid for can of honey, juice pitcher, milk bottle, seltzer bottle, lid of cinnamon jar, bread bag, cellophane wrapping of box of tea, packaging of tea bag, thermos, spatula handle, bottle of dish soap, bowl, cutting board, baggies, computer, fleece sweatshirt, sports bra, yoga pants, sneakers, tub containing cat food, cup inside tub to scoop out the kibble, dog leash, Walkman, newspaper bag, stray packet of mayo on sidewalk, garbage can.
"Wow!" said my daughter, her eyes widening as she scanned the rapidly growing list.
By the end of the day I had filled four pages in my notebook. My rule was to record each item just once, even those I touched repeatedly, like the fridge handle. Otherwise I could have filled the whole notebook. As it was, the list included 196 entries, ranging from large items, like the dashboard of my minivanâreally, the entire interiorâto minutiae, like the oval stickers adorning the apples I cut up for lunch. Packaging, not surprisingly, made up a big part of the list.
I'd never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled life. I live in a house that's nearly a hundred years old. I like natural fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said my home harbors less plastic than the average American'sâmainly for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself? The next day I tracked everything I touched that
made of plastic. By bedtime, I had recorded 102 items in my notebook, giving me a plastic/nonplastic ratio of nearly two to one. Here's a sample from the first hour of the day:
Cotton sheets, wood floor, toilet paper, porcelain tap, strawberries, mango, granite-tile countertop, stainless steel spoon, stainless steel faucet, paper towel, cardboard egg carton, eggs, orange juice, aluminum pie plate, wool rug, glass butter dish, butter, cast-iron griddle, syrup bottle, wooden breadboard, bread, aluminum colander, ceramic plates, glasses, glass doorknob, cotton socks, wooden dining-room table, my dog's metal choke collar, dirt, leaves, twigs, sticks, grass (and if I weren't using a plastic bag, what my dog deposited amid those leaves, twigs, and grass).
Oddly, I found it harder and more boring to maintain the nonplastic list. Because I'd pledged not to count items more than once, after the first flood of entries, there wasn't that much varietyâat least not when compared with the plastics catalog. Wood, wool, cotton, glass, stone, metal, food. Distilled further: animal, vegetable, mineral. Those basic categories prettymuch encompassed the items on the nonplastic list. The plastic list, by contrast, reflected a cornucopia of materials, a dazzling variety of the synthetica that has come to constitute such a huge, and yet strangely invisible, part of modern life.
Pondering the lengthy list of plastic in my surroundings, I realized I actually knew almost nothing about it. What is plastic, really? Where does it come from? How did my life become so permeated by synthetics without my even trying? Looking over the list I could see plastic products that I appreciated for making my life easier and more convenient (my wash-and-wear clothes, my appliances, that plastic bag for my dog's poop) and plastic things I knew I could just as easily do without (Styrofoam cups, sandwich baggies, my nonstick pan).
I'd never really looked hard at life in Plasticville. But news reports about toxic toys and baby bottles seemed to suggest that the costs might outweigh the benefits. I began to wonder if I'd unwittingly exposed my own children to chemicals that could affect their development and health. That hard-plastic water bottle I'd included in my daughter's lunch since kindergarten has been shown to leach a chemical that mimics estrogen. Was that why she'd sprouted breast buds at nine? Other questions quickly followed. What was happening to the plastic things I diligently dropped into my recycling bin? Were they actually being recycled? Or were my discards ending up far away in the ocean in vast currents of plastic trash? Were there seals somewhere choking on my plastic bottle tops? Should I quit using plastic shopping bags? Would that soda bottle really outlive my children and me? Did it matter? Should I care? What does it really mean to live in Plasticville?
is itself cause for confusion. We use it in the singular, and indiscriminately, to refer to any artificial material. But there are tens of thousands of different plastics.
And rather than making up a single family of materials, they're more a collection of loosely related clans.
I got a glimpse of the nearly inexhaustible possibilities contained in that one little word when I visited a place in New York called Material ConneXion, a combination of a consultancy and a materials larder for designers pondering what to make their products out of. Its founder described it as a "petting zoo for new materials."
And I did feel like I was in a tactile and visual wonderland as I browsed some of the thousands of plastics on file. There was a thick acrylic slab that looked like a pristine frozen waterfall; jewel-colored blobs of gel that begged to be squeezed; a flesh-toned fabric that looked and felt like an old person's skin. ("Ugh, I'd never want to wear anything like that," one staffer commented.) There were swatches of fake fur, green netting, gray shag rug, fake blades of grass, fabric that holds the memory of how it's folded, fabric that can absorb solar energy and transmit it to the wearer. I looked at blocks that mimicked finely veined marble, smoky topaz, dull concrete, speckled granite, grained wood. I touched surfaces that were matte, shiny, bumpy, sandpapery, fuzzy, squishy, feathery, cool as metal, warm and yielding as flesh.
But a plastic doesn't have to be part of the exotic menagerie at Material ConneXion to impress. Even a common plastic such as nylon offers wow-inducing possibility. It can be silky when serving in a parachute, stretchy when spun into pantyhose, bristly when fixed at the end of your toothbrush, or bushy on a strip of Velcro.
swooned over such versatility in a 1947 article titled "Nylon ... the Gay Deceiver."
However much they differ, all plastics have one thing in common: they are polymers, which is Greek for "many parts." They are substances made up of long chains of thousands of atomic units called monomers (Greek for "one part") linked into giant molecules. Polymer molecules are absurdly huge compared to the tidy, compact molecules of a substance like water, with its paltry one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Polymer molecules can contain tens of thousands of monomersâchain links so long that for years scientists disputed whether they could actually be bonded into a single molecule. You might as well claim, said one chemist, that "somewhere in Africa an elephant was found who was 1,500 feet long and 300 feet high."
But the molecules did exist, and their hugeness helps account for plastic's essential feature: its plasticity. Think of the ways a long strand of beads can be manipulatedâpulled or stretched, stacked or coiledâcompared to what can be done with just a single bead or a few. The lengths and arrangement of the strands help to determine a polymer's properties: its strength, durability, clarity, flexibility, elasticity. Chains crowded close together can make for a tough, rigid plastic bottle, like the kind used to hold detergent. Chains more widely spaced can yield a more flexible bottle ideal for squeezing out ketchup.
It's often said that we live in the age of plastics. But when, exactly, did we slip into that epoch? Some say it began in the mid-nineteenth century, when inventors started developing new, malleable semi-synthetic compounds from plants to replace scarce natural materials such as ivory. Others fix the date to 1907, when Belgian Ã©migrÃ© Leo Baekeland cooked up Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer, made entirely of molecules that couldn't be found in nature. With the product's invention, the Bakelite Corporation boasted, humans had transcended the classic taxonomies of the natural world: the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms. Now we had "a fourth kingdom, whose boundaries are unlimited."
You could also peg the dawn of the plastics age to 1941, when, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the director of the board responsible for provisioning the American military advocated the substitution, whenever possible, of plastics for aluminum, brass, and other strategic metals.
World War II pulled polymer chemistry out of the lab and into real life. Many of the major plastics we know todayâpolyethylene, nylon, acrylic, Styrofoam
âgot their first marching orders during the war. And having ramped up production to meet military needs, industry inevitably had to turn its synthetic swords into plastic plowshares. As one early plastics executive recalled, by the war's end it was obvious that "virtually nothing was made from plastic and anything could be."
That's when plastics truly began infiltrating every pore of daily life, quietly entering our homes, our cars, our clothes, our playthings, our workplaces, even our bodies.
In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture. Even Amish buggies are now made partly out of the fiber-reinforced plastic known as fiberglass. By 1979, production of plastics exceeded that of steel. In an astonishingly brief period, plastic had become the skeleton, the connective tissue, and the slippery skin of modern life.