'A Poison Like No Other' Makes You Think Twice About Plastic

This America Recycles Day, Matt Simon's book is essential reading.

High Angle View Of Garbage At Dumping Ground

Abdul Raheem Mohamed / EyeEm / Getty Images

Title: A Poison Like No Other
Author: Matt Simon
Topic(s): Nonfiction, Recycling
Publisher: Island Press
Publish Date: October 2022
Page Count: 252

America Recycles Day is celebrated on November 15 every year and is a shadow of its former self. It used to be our favorite day to question the recycling industry and the companies behind the event. In my first post about it in 2008, I wrote:

"Let's call recycling what it is – a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Look who sponsors the National Recycling Coalition, behind America Recycles Day: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Owens-Illinois, International Bottled Water Association (IWBA), the same people who brought you that other fraud, Keep America Beautiful. Recycling is simply the transfer of producer responsibility for what they produce to the taxpayer who has to pick it up and take it away."

Of all those fancy big sponsors, only the International Bottled Water Association remains, joined by a Dutch beer company, an insurance company, and a craft distiller I have never heard of. This year they are pushing job creation.

“Educating and motivating Americans to recycle is one of the most important aspects of our mission at Keep America Beautiful. Today we celebrate those who passionately work to create programs and projects to increase awareness and action for a circular economy. Thank you for being stewards of sustainability,” said Jennifer Lawson, Keep America Beautiful's president and CEO.

But as we have noted before, the purpose of educating and motivating Americans to recycle is to make them feel good about single-use products. The reason for talking about the circular economy is because recycling is broken and circular sounds better. And while aluminum and cardboard have value and are recycled, most single-use plastics are not worth very much. That's why, as a Greenpeace report recently showed, less than 5% of plastics in the U.S. are recycled, and the rest is being burned, landfilled, or lost on land or in the oceans.

We should be so lucky that plastics are landfilled or even floating in the oceans. In a shocking new book from Island Press, "A Poison Like No Other," Matt Simon writes that when these plastics break down, it just turns into smaller and smaller particles—microplastics and nanoplastics—so tiny that they get into our lungs and even our brains. They are in our food, they are in everything, and are everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the tallest mountain.

Cover image of Matt Simon's book "A Poison Like No Other"

Matt Simon / Island Press

Simon writes:

"You are at this moment exposed to some of the highest concentrations of microplastic anywhere. Stare into the light pouring in through a window and you’ll catch glimmers of airborne microplastics flittering around like insects. Leave out a glass of water and you’ll find microfibers from your clothes creating tiny dents of surface tension. Leave a glass next to your bed when you change your sheets and you’ll see just how many particles the fabric flings into the air. The dust that accumulates in corners and the lint that sticks to your clothes—it’s all plastic."

Two-thirds of clothing sold today are made from plastic, and the fibers are constantly being shed. They are spitting out the backs of our clothes dryers or falling off us as we walk. Every time we drive, microplastic particles wear off our tires, emitting 3.3 billion tons of microplastic from the U.S. alone every year.

Then we are eating and drinking them—there's plastic in everything we eat, from salt to fish. Microplastics are constantly being shed and ingested. Even preparing infant formula with heat and shaking could release several million microplastics. "Basically, when you and your children drink hot liquids, do consider how they’re prepared," writes Simon. "Takeout coffee cups, which are lined with polyethylene to keep the paper from disintegrating, release tens of thousands of microplastics and millions of nanoplastics."

Researcher holding small pieces of micro plastic pollution washed up on a beach

Alistair Berg / Getty Images

Simon notes, as we often have, that plastics are incredibly useful and important to modern medicine and safety, with the wire insulation that keeps our homes from burning down. "But with plastic, we’ve contaminated every corner of Earth and our own bodies, the consequences of which scientists are now desperate to understand," he writes.

He calls for "a fundamental renegotiation of our relationship with polymers," noting that it wasn't too long ago that we got along perfectly fine with cardboard and refillable glass bottles instead of single-use plastic. "Plastics are fossil fuels, and plastics are climate change, so in scorning the material, we’ll tackle both crises—really, we can’t fix one without fixing the other." 

Reading this book will fundamentally change your own relationship with plastic. One has to think differently about it if you know that you are ingesting millions of particles with your morning takeout coffee, or that clouds of nanoplastics are following you around. "We are all, then, like Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comics, who swirls with a perpetual aura of dust, only we’re depositing our microfibers wherever we go."

We have been critical of recycling, as is Simon, who writes: "As Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry (now called the Plastics Industry Association), told NPR in 2020: 'If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.'"

We have called single-use plastics a scourge because they are solid fossil fuels that needlessly despoil land and water. But reading "A Poison Like No Other," we learn that it is far worse than we imagined. Since the end of the Second World War, we have been part of a chemistry experiment exposed to bisphenols and phthalates and thousands of other chemicals mixed in with the polymers and petrochemicals that are in our soil, our food, and our bodies. If there ever was a reason to ban single-use plastics and stop this recycling charade, this is it.

"A Poison Like No Other" hit bookshelves in October 2022. Available at bookshop.org or at local retailers.

The Treehugger Reading List

Are you looking to learn more about sustainable living or climate change? Do you want an engrossing read about nature or design? Here's a running list of books our staff has reviewed and loved.

View Article Sources
  1. "Circular Claims Fall Flat Again." Greenpeace, 2022.

  2. "Report: Non-Exhaust Emissions from Road Traffic." UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2019.