Following my adventures with plastic knitting (see previous post), I was fascinated to hear of the publication of Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). Freinkel’s journalistic exploration of the history and present and future trajectory of our relationship with the ubiquitous family of materials that can be labelled plastic is a fine read.
Freinkel’s book began with an experiment. She decided to go a whole day without touching plastic. This experiment ended abruptly when she got out of bed and was confronted with her plastic toilet seat. Hence, a quite different book to the “My Year without Plastic”-type thing currently in vogue was born. I think it’s probably an improvement. Instead of focusing on the author’s individual experience, it gives a broad and compelling panorama of the place of plastic in today’s world.
Freinkel is generous in her praise and admiration for the pioneers of the plastics industries, for the designers of the molecules which are the building blocks of our plasticized lives and the designers who put them to myriad uses. As the wife of a scientist it is reassuring to read her sympathetically quoting Nathaniel Wyeth, the chemist and mechanical engineer who invented the plastic soda bottle, complaining that, “I’m in the same field as the artists – creativity – but theirs is a glamour one.” (p. 171) In her chapter about medical uses of vinyl and PVC, she leaves us in no doubt of our debt to their life-saving properties in the provision of medical equipment and technology. Nevertheless, she pulls no punches in describing the insidious effects of the ubiquity of such plastics in our lives, and invading our bodies. She is uncompromising in her description of the political and economic battles that are fought to keep the burden of proof on those who suspect plastics of causing harm, rather than on the side of safety first.
She explores the recycling movement and industry, and the new “bio-plastics” which are being engineered to assuage our guilt at the production of gargantuan amounts of plastic litter. Neither innovation, however, addresses the shift in consumption which accompanied the introduction of plastics into our lives, the “one-way” stream of disposable goods which typifies the non-cyclical life-cycle of a plastic item. Freinkel confronts that nagging problem when she considers the desirability of a totally biodegradable sofa:
Leaving aside the question of whether that goal is even feasible, what does it say about our culture? Is a biodegradable couch a sign of a more sustainable mentality?Or is it just a greened-up version of the same old shop-and-toss habits? Traditionally, durability and longevity have bestowed additional value – a great-grandparent’s walnut dresser isn’t merely a place to store clothes; with time it becomes an heirloom, a connection to a past that has been conserved. Buying a two-thousand-dollar sofa designed for guilt-free disposal bears an uncomfortable resemblance to buying a ninety-nine cent lighter also designed to be tossed.” (p. 224)
The exploitation of plastics’ natural talent for endurance is explored in an epilogue which does bring a word of hope that plastics can become an emblem of our ongoing heritage rather than throwaway consumerism
Of course, on a personal note, the chapter on plastic bags spoke directly to my heart, having just completed the plastic knitting project. The problems of recyclability, reusability, of the litter of plastic bags, their demand for petroleum resources, the pollution involved in their production, are all explored, as is the wonder of their design – so light, thin, and yet so strong. It was, surprisingly, in the chapter on plastic bottles, however, that I found a knitting reference: on p. 175, Freinkel reports that,
Nationally, we recycle only about a quarter of PET bottles … So of the roughly seventy-two billion bottles produced each year, some fifty-five billion end up being landfilled or littered. That’s nearly enough polyester to knit three sweaters for every resident of the United States.
Now there’s a challenge!