Addicted to Polymers

Susan Freinkel
Plastic: A Love Story
(Houghton Mifflin, 2011)

My review copy of Susan Freinkel’s forthcoming Plastic: A Toxic Love Story featured a blurb in the biography declaring that Freinkel’s previous effort, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, was “a perfect book.” Though I was unfamiliar with Freinkel’s writing, I must admit that I felt dubious about the claim. In both my personal and professional experience, I have rarely, if ever, come across a book that I would describe as “perfect.” However, after finishing Plastic, I was convinced that the appellation might well be accurate, not only for American Chestnut, but possibly for Plastic as well.

As detailed in the introduction, Plastic germinated from an experiment in which Freinkel attempted to spend an entire day without touching or using anything made of plastic. Her plan, of course, had to be aborted within minutes as she realized that even the most basic functions these days (brushing your teeth, using the bathroom, etc.) involved plastics to a large extent. (My own brief flirtation with replicating Freinkel’s idea ended when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to switch off my alarm clock without touching plastic.) From this failure, Freinkel decided to study how and why plastics had become so ubiquitous in our lives and what the ramifications of that fact were.

In order to detail the rise of plastics, Freinkel wisely decided to focus on eight common objects that have either been revolutionized by the manufacture of plastic or that have only come into existence due to the unique properties of polymers. The use of these otherwise disparate objects to explore the history of the material provides two huge advantages. The first is that it provides an enormous amount of context for the reader. The objects examined—plastic combs, chairs, Frisbees, lighters, IV bags, grocery bags, credit cards, and soda bottles—are all objects that nearly all Americans will have used or come into frequent contact with. With the exception of the IV bags, you can literally and easily get your hands on all of the products detailed by Freinkel at a Target or a Wal Mart, for example, and probably for less than $30.

The second advantage of focusing on these tangible objects (and the wisdom of choosing these particular products) is that each offers a window into the non-scientific and economic forces that drove the design and creation of all this plastic, as well as providing colorful anecdotes about said creation. The reader of the section on chairs, for instance, will also receive a crash course on furniture design in the mid-20th century. The Frisbee chapter delivers an unforgettable anecdote about the creator of disc golf who had his ashes molded into special Frisbees for his closest friends upon his death.

Of course, this is all just fascinating background color on the primary topic, plastic itself. Freinkel takes a mostly unbiased point of view for much of book, pointing out plastic’s utility, durability, and low cost while also describing the deleterious and, at times horrific, consequences to both the environment and our health as a result of our reliance on plastic. The chapter on IV bags, for example, details the amount of lives that have been saved by the use of plastic in medicine while also investigating the serious side effects that can be caused by the leaching of chemicals from medical equipment into the human body.

As Freinkel notes and describes, a great deal of the rise of plastics can be traced back to the practicalities of energy production. Bakelite, one of the first widely available and successful commercial plastics, was developed by Leo Baekeland in the early 20th century from byproducts of the process of coking coal. As more developments and discoveries were made, plastics stopped being derived from coal tar and were instead fabricated from the byproducts of the oil refining process, ethylene gas, propylene, and acrylonitrile. This use of otherwise discarded material to make plastic is one of the primary factors in the low cost of plastic; it also perpetuates a somewhat insidious loop. As we continue depending primarily on oil for our energy needs, plastics will remain cheap and ubiquitous. As we have likewise become so dependent on the use of plastics, a need will remain to continue refining petroleum even if sufficient means of producing energy by alternate sources becomes viable.

This loop wouldn’t be nearly so problematic if it weren’t for a few serious concerns. The first is that the world is filling with plastic, and this is having a major effect on the environment. Freinkel’s descriptions of the Pacific plastic vortex, an area in the Pacific Ocean roughly the size of Texas swimming in plastic, are shocking and terrifying enough on their own; yet, there are approximately five such areas scattered throughout the world’s oceans. The tales take on a more heartbreaking tone when reading about albatross autopsies performed in the areas; as the dead birds are cut open, their bodies are literally on the verge of bursting with the amount of disposable lighters and plastic bottle caps they have ingested out in the open oceans. Likewise, Freinkel points to any number of studies showing that the chemicals leaching out of plastics are taking an as yet unknown toll on humans as well.

Additionally, the energy concerns of this loop are striking. Plastic is primarily used to make packaging materials these days (33 percent of all plastics). As Freinkel notes, plastic pellets are produced at oil refineries along the Gulf Coast in America. These pellets are then shipped off, usually to China, at great expense of energy, where they are then processed and molded into their final shapes before being shipped back to America, again, expending even more energy in the process. These plastic packaging materials are then in use typically for only a matter of seconds before the plastic is thrown into the trash. This is, without a doubt, one of the largest mass scale wastes of time, energy, resources, and manpower ever committed by the human race.

It should be noted, however, that Freinkel’s position by the end of Plastic is not that plastics should be abolished or outlawed. (As she notes, most studies show that plastic grocery bags are actually better for the environment than the manufacture of paper bags.) However, she does believe that our relationship with plastics and their use needs to change in order to avoid an ugly and potentially dangerous world filled with plastic detritus. The closing section of this excellent book provides an example of plastics used well in the Wharton State Forest bridge in New Jersey. This plastic bridge was constructed from recycled plastics, soda bottles and the like, and promises a corrosion-free and nearly maintenance-free lifespan of approximately 200 years. It is a sane and sensible use of plastics, one that will save money and energy while providing actual use beyond the relatively short term value of plastic packaging materials. This will hopefully be the future of plastics; in short, a permanent material should be used for permanent things rather than disposable ones.


James Arnett