It clogs our oceans and tampers with our bodies, yet without it, all modern life would skid to a stop. Susan Freinkel's new book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, explores the rise of plastic into ubiquity, hails it for its life-saving wonders, and explores the dark side of this material of modernity.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Your book-Plastic: A Toxic Love Story-opens with your account of an experiment that you set out to conduct on yourself. Tell us about that.
Susan Freinkel: I decided I would try to go a day without touching anything plastic. But I didn't think through the idea very hard, which is why on the appointed morning I walked into my bathroom, ten seconds into my day, and there confronted my plastic toilet seat.
Then I looked around the bathroom and realized that everything in the bathroom was plastic. So I had to change my plans, and I decided instead that I would spend the day writing down what was plastic. By day's end I had amassed this very long list of things, from the tiny little stickers on my organic fruit to virtually the entire interior of my car. And it was an eye-opening experience, making me realize how completely plastic our lives are.
TH: So plastic is everywhere. But it wasn't always the case. Give us a nutshell version of the rise of plastic.
Freinkel: Plastics actually date back to the mid-19th century, but they really didn't become a significant force in our lives until after World War II. And that's partly because, although a lot of plastics had been invented by then, production hadn't really ramped up. What got it going was the military needs of the war and the military's decision to sub in plastic for various strategic metals and rubber.
And so at the end of the war, you suddenly had this pent-up supply that had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was consumer markets. It's really in the '50s where you start to see this flood of plastic stuff; first into durable goods like TVs, paneling for houses, clothing, shoes, etc. And then, at a certain point in the early '60s, there comes the realization that if you're going to keep growing this industry and keep growing demand, you're going to have to develop new kinds of uses.
And that's when you started to really see the rise of disposable plastics, which now account for about half of all plastics produced.
By the early '80s, we really had pretty much become a plastic people. In 1960, the average person consumed 30 pounds of plastic a year. Now it's 300 pounds.
TH: Does plastic come from oil?
Freinkel: Plastic can come from a lot of different sources. Plastic, unlike rubber, is a synthetic material. There are lots and lots of different plastics. Actually, in this country, most of them are made from natural gas. Or they can be made from oil.
What happens is the hydrocarbon molecules that come up in gas or oil go through a refining process, and they throw off certain by-products. The petrochemical industry has gotten very good at taking those by-products and using them to make new products, including lots of different kinds of plastics.
TH: One thing that I really like about the book that you're not shy to talk about all the amazing things that plastic has done for us. And you start with medicine. Tell us about that.
Freinkel: You could not have modern medicine without plastic. If you took out plastic from a hospital, the place would grind to a standstill. It is part of the most mundane things: the band-aids, the little cups that are passed out to patients, disposable syringes. And it's part of the high-tech stuff, whether it's cutting-edge imaging devices or replacement parts for our body. My mother recently broke her hip and got a replacement hip which is partly plastic. It's absolutely indispensable in modern medicine.
TH: You wrote an op-ed in The New York Times recently talking about how plastic is too valuable to waste. Is that what you're talking about?
Freinkel: What I'm really talking about is the idea that we use so much plastic on trivial throwaways and on things that are essentially pre-fabbed garbage or litter. And that gets at the point, among other things, that we recycle very little of the plastic that we use. So, to me, it's a great irony that we go through this huge expense and trouble, and often vicious political fights, over where we're going to extract oil or natural gas, like the fracking debate now. And then we use that to make things like a soda-pop bottle or a plastic bag or a little table that'll be in your pizza box. And then we throw it away.
We landfill it or we incinerate it. Those are valuable hydrocarbons that shouldn't be being lost. I think, though, that because so much plastic goes to trash, we forget that this is valuable stuff, and it becomes very easy, then, to dismiss the ways in which it is useful and important, like many of the medical applications.