Plastic, A Toxic Love Story (Book Review)

Like most TreeHugger readers I had an ah ha moment a while ago regarding plastics, the ubiquity of them in our lives, the huge problems of disposing or recycling them, the absurdity of using a material that takes anywhere from thousands to billions of years to biodegrade in products destined for one-time use, the health problems increasingly being linked with some of them, etc., etc.. It was truly head spinning for me, especially when you attempt to balance the negatives of plastics with the undeniable good uses of them for some applications.

It was apparently head spinning for Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, newly released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

A more graphically minded person might create some infographic explaining the stages of plastics cognition, moving from ignorance to shock to disgust to resignation to reluctant acceptance, but Freinkel wrote a book. Plastic opens with Freinkel's experiment with documenting the plastics in her life and comparing them against the non-plastic items. Plastics came out ahead by nearly 2-to-1. In the process she discovered, as most people do who even delve into this for a day, that in our modern society it is impossible to escape plastics in a practical sense, at least for very long and despite our most diligent efforts.

Freinkel points out what may be obvious to some but is always worth reinforcing: Plastics rose to ubiquity only post-World War 2 and in line with the radical expansion of energy use that has occurred since then. That continues to this day unabated. One of the most shocking stats to me in the whole book is in the first few pages: In the past 12 years humans have created more plastics than were created in the entire 20th century.

Plastic is an easy and compelling overview of the rise of plastics, a description of what Freinkel calls the plastic clan, the myriad forms they take, their advantages, their sometimes wondrous application, and often latter-learned unintended consequences.

This progress of discovery, wonder, and realization is no better illustrated than in the fourth chapter.

Here Freinkel delves into the great benefits that soft plastics brought to medicine, going back now sixty years. From battlefield medics not having to lug breakable glass bottles into the field and hospitals being able to better car for patients in personally threatening if not overtly hostile places, plastics have saved lives, full stop. But as plastics become more and more used, and people begin absorbing more and more parts of them become absorbed into the body in the form of endocrine disruptors, problems emerge. Fast forward to today and all the concern over the apparent toxicity of bisphenol A.

The publishers requested I mention this: Houghton Miflin Harcourt is dunning an Earth Day Plastic-free Prize Pack sweepstakes. You can enter at that previous link up until 11:59 PM EDT on April 25th.

More on Plastics
Compostable and 'Biodegradable' Plastics Provide a False Sense of Responsibility
A Worthy Social Experiment: Abstain From Plastic For A Month

Tags: Bisphenol A | Book Reviews | Plastics