For bet­ter or worse we’re plas­tic wrapped

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Phil Brown

IT started so promis­ingly but some­where along the way our re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic soured. Still, in the first flush of ro­mance it was seen as a saviour. By way of an ex­am­ple, con­sider the ele­phant, en­dan­gered in some re­gions but, as Su­san Freinkel points out, there might not be any left at all had we not dis­cov­ered plas­tic.

The sur­vival of these mighty mam­mals was se­ri­ously threat­ened in the mid-19th cen­tury be­cause of de­mand for ivory, which was used for piano keys, bil­liard balls, combs and all man­ner of other things.

Freinkel tells us that in 1867 The New York Times re­ported that 3500 pachy­derms were dis­patched in less than three years in Cey­lon. A sub­sti­tute for ivory had to be found and it was John Wes­ley Hy­att, a young printer and in­ven­tor from up­state New York, who came up with cel­lu­loid as a sub­sti­tute. ‘‘ Cel­lu­loid could be ren­dered with the rich creamy hues and stri­a­tions of the finest tusks from Cey­lon, a faux ma­te­rial mar­keted as French Ivory.’’

Freinkel points out that though early plas­tic was an en­vi­ron­men­tal boon we are now on the verge of en­vi­ron­men­tal disas­ter thanks to the pro­lif­er­a­tion and dura­bil­ity of plas­tic. Or should that be plas­tics?

‘‘ The word plas­tic is it­self cause for con­fu­sion. We use it in the sin­gu­lar, and in­dis­crim­i­nately, to re­fer to any ar­ti­fi­cial ma­te­rial. But there are tens of thou­sands of dif­fer­ent plas­tics,’’ she writes. A cast of char­ac­ters sec­tion lists some of the main play­ers: polyethy­lene, polypropy­lene, poly- vinyl chlo­ride (vinyl), poly­styrene, ny­lon and so on.

Plas­tic in all its forms is ubiq­ui­tous, some­thing many en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists con­sider the spawn of Satan. For most of the past cen­tury we have cel­e­brated it as we de­vel­oped new types, in­spired by hu­man and of­ten mil­i­tary in­ge­nu­ity.

Freinkel, who mixes sci­en­tific fact with anec­dotes and charm­ing pop-cul­tural ref­er­ences, can’t quite pin­point when ‘‘ the poly­mer rap­ture be­gan to fade but it was gone by 1967 when the film The Grad­u­ate came out’’. By then plas­tic was seen as ‘‘ cheap er­satz’’, a metaphor for ar­ti­fi­cial­ity. So Ben­jamin Brad­dock, played by the young Dustin Hoff­man, is mildly hor­ri­fied when taken aside by a fam­ily friend and given the fol­low­ing ca­reer ad­vice: "I just want to say one word to you: plas­tics!"

Sage coun­sel, in­deed, be­cause there’s money in them there rub­bish tips full of plas­tic bags. The plas­tic in­dus­try is thriv­ing world­wide, al­though per­haps ul­ti­mately doomed since most of to­day’s plas­tics are made of hy­dro­car­bon mol­e­cules — pack­ets of car­bon and hy­dro­gen — de­rived from the re­fin­ing of oil and nat­u­ral gas.

For bet­ter and worse our lives are in­trin­si­cally tied to plas­tic, which is used in just about ev­ery­thing, ev­ery­where. Freinkel de­cided to chron­i­cle her daily in­ter­ac­tion with plas­tic and made a list of all the plas­tic in her life: alarm clock, tooth­brush, light switches, yo­ghurt con­tainer, milk bot­tles, cut­ting board, dog leash, garbage bin — you get the pic­ture.

‘‘ Pon­der­ing the lengthy list of plas­tic in my sur­round­ings, I re­alised I ac­tu­ally knew al­most noth­ing about it. What is plas­tic, re­ally? Where does it come from? How did my life be­come so per­me­ated by syn­thet­ics with­out my even try­ing?’’ she writes.

There had to be a book in

it, right? And in­deed there is and it’s a thor­oughly re­searched, en­gag­ing read. Geek lit can get bogged down when the facts get in the way of a good story. Freinkel, how­ever, adeptly bal­ances tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion with his­tory, anec­dote and end­less in­ter­est­ing di­gres­sions, of­ten ref­er­enc­ing the cre­ative arts. (There’s a lovely pas­sage about O. Henry’s fa­mous short story The Gift of the Magi and I shall leave you to dis­cover what on earth that could pos­si­bly have to do with the his­tory of plas­tic.)

The book is also a trav­el­ogue at times as Freinkel, a free­lance writer based in San Fran­cisco, jets off on re­search trips. She meets in­dus­tri­al­ists, chemists, doc­tors, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and oth­ers along the way. Freinkel em­ploys com­monly used items as start­ing points for chap­ters: the plas­tic chair, the comb, the dis­pos­able lighter, IV bags and tub­ing, the soft drink bot­tle and the plas­tic bag.

The toxic na­ture of some plas­tics is a concern and she points out the health risks associated. The fi­nal chap­ter, The Mean­ing of Green, deals with pos­si­ble so­lu­tions to the prob­lems of plas­tic pol­lu­tion.

Plas­tic makes up only 10 per cent of the world’s garbage but it is ‘‘ stub­bornly per­sis­tent’’. In the north Pa­cific, in a vast tract of wa­ter known as the North Pa­cific Sub­trop­i­cal Gyre, we see how per­sis­tent.

Cal­i­for­nian sailor Charles Moore tells the au­thor what he saw in the dol­drums-like con­di­tions there, with cur­rents spin­ning in a slow, clock­wise vor­tex.

‘‘ As I gazed from the deck at the sur­face of what ought to have been a pris­tine ocean, I was con­fronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plas­tic.’’ Phil Brown is a Bris­bane-based jour­nal­ist and au­thor. His books in­clude the po­etry vol­ume Plas­tic Parables.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.