Can't Live With It, Can't Get Rid of It: We exalt plastic as a synonym for credit and disparage it as the stuff of superficiality.
By Claire Lui
In the 44 years since The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock was advised that plastics were his future, the material has become enmeshed in our present. We exalt plastic as a synonym for credit and disparage it as the stuff of superficiality. Susan Freinkel’s new book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) examines how a material that started off as an almost miraculous solution to many human problems has become a permanent, and in several ways pernicious, part of our lives.
Divided into stories of eight iconic plastic objects — comb, chair, Frisbee, IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card — the book explores plastic’s environmental, monetary and global effects. Though the conclusion is dire, Freinkel doesn’t scold, but writes with equal parts humor and rigor.
Claire Lui: What made you decide to write about plastic?
Susan Freinkel: I live in San Francisco, a place where concerns about plastic have been brewing for years. So one day I decided to see if I could go 24 hours without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of that idea became immediately clear when, on the appointed morning, I walked into the bathroom and confronted my plastic toilet seat. New plan: I would instead spend the day writing down everything that I touched that was plastic. By day’s end I had a list of more than 200 items. I was surprised to realize how much plastic had become a part of my life without my even trying. And I was surprised by the variety of things on the list — from food packaging to my sneakers to the knob to our front door, which looked like brass but I discovered was actually plastic. Looking at that diverse array of stuff, I realized I had no idea what plastic is or where it comes from or the extent to which it is a problem. I figured if I was asking those questions, lots of others were as well.
Lui: How did you decide on the eight plastic items your book is built around?
Freinkel: I was looking for objects that would allow me to explore certain themes in the plastics story. For instance, I knew I wanted to cover the history of how early plastics were used to replace scarce natural materials. But I wasn’t sure what object would best express that history until I visited the late, great National Plastics Museum in Leominster, Massachusetts, and saw a display of gorgeous celluloid combs that looked like they’d been carved from ivory. Likewise, I wanted to explore the double-edged role plastics have played in medicine, making possible both great medical advances, while introducing potential new health risks. The blood bag embodied both. It revolutionized the way blood is collected and stored, but the material used to make it, vinyl, leaches chemicals that may act as hormone disrupters.
Lui: What were some of the other objects you considered focusing on and why did you ultimately choose not to include them?
Freinkel: I needed objects that had good stories attached to them, embodied a given theme clearly, and above all, were affiliated with companies that would give me access. So, for example, to describe the global production chain involved in making most plastic products, I wanted to use a toy. I initially hoped to write about dolls, but I could never convince either of the major doll manufacturers, Mattel or Hasbro, to cooperate. Wham-o, maker of the Frisbee, agreed to let me visit its factory in China.
Lui: In the book, there’s a sense that you yourself have been seduced by plastics at various points in your research. Can you talk about the love/hate relationship you allude to in your title?
Freinkel: Plastics are amazing materials, though that can be hard to remember when you’re looking at photos of seabirds with bellies full of plastic trash. But plastics freed us from nature’s limits and gave us an unprecedented ability to make things that we need and want – and for relatively little money. Over the decades, polymer engineering has gotten very good at manufacturing materials that do exactly what we need them to, whether that’s running marathons, stopping a bullet or keeping a shipment of lettuce fresh. Unfortunately, we’ve also used plastics to make a lot of low-quality and kitschy crap — think pink flamingos, dashboard Jesuses, quickly broken party favors. That stuff has diminished plastic’s reputation. As has the fact that we continue to use too much plastic for throwaway applications. The convenience is seductive, and yet our reliance on disposables is a problem given that the materials are engineered not to break down.
Lui: Has writing this altered your plastic consumption?
Freinkel: It comes down to lots of little changes: I carry reusable bags when I shop. I think harder about how products or food are packaged and will forego something if the packaging is just too much. My family likes fizzy water, so instead of buying it in bottles, we got a seltzer maker that comes with refillable cartridges and reusable bottles. I pack the kids’ lunches in reusable containers. I don’t own a microwave or cook much frozen food, but if I did, I would not heat them in plastic. I’m also much more diligent about recycling.
To Read the Rest of the Interview