For better or worse we’re plastic wrapped
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.