The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 18, 2011

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story Book Review

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story book coverIn the beginning of 2009, I sat in an Oakland Cafe with San Francisco journalist Susan Freinkel, explaining my plastic-free life. She was working on a book about the story of plastic and wanted to hear my point of view, which of course I shared enthusiastically, even dragging her off the butcher shop with me and my stainless steel pot to buy plastic-free meat for my cats.

Her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story has been officially released today.  After spending all weekend with it, I’m happy to give it a hearty recommendation. This is neither a dry environmental text nor alarmist rant. Telling the story of plastic through eight everyday plastic items — a comb, plastic chair, Frisbee, hospital IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card — the book describes both the hopes and hazards of plastic in a conversational style that’s hard to put down.

The title of the book is appropriate. In the first chapters, Freinkel’s enthusiasm for her subject matches the excitement the inventors of plastics and plastic products must have felt in their quest to devise replacements for natural substances — often from endangered species — that were running out: ivory, tortoise shell, shellac, etc. The problem solvers who created our early synthetic polymers had no idea of the consequences their products would create for the future. They wanted to make life easier and better, and their stories are fascinating.

But of course, love affairs don’t last forever, and one by one, Freinkel lists and elaborates on the problems with plastic. Believe me, she gets them all: made from fossil fuels, full of toxic chemicals (not just the polymers but the mystery additives, about which I am incessantly ranting), poisoning the oceans and harmful to wildlife, seldom actually recycled (mostly downcycled), and on and on. She takes us to China where most plastic products are produced and where most of our plastic recycling is done, noting the working conditions of the employees who labor for a fraction of what an American worker would be paid.

And we visit the Neonatal Unit of a hospital where premature babies are kept alive in plastic boxes with plastic tubing running through their bodies, plastic that saves their lives in the short-term only to have damaging effects from endocrine disrupting chemicals as their systems develop later on.  What I loved? She not only tells us phthalates like DEHP in PVC are harmful, she explains exactly how they operate in the body in a way that any lay person like me can easily understand.  The book is full of gems like that.

Freinkel goes on to explain the history of plastic bags and bottles, how they came to replace paper and glass, the grassroots efforts now being waged to either eliminate them, in the case of bags, or get manufacturers to take responsibility for their recycling, in the case of bottles, and the strategies used by the American Chemistry Council to defeat these efforts, strategies she compares to those employed by the tobacco industry.

But lest you think Susan Freinkel is an activist, keep in mind that she is a journalist reporting a story. In each section of the book she is careful to report various sides to the issues at hand. And she’s not wholly anti-plastic.  As she concluded in her New York Times op-ed last month, “In other words, plastics aren’t necessarily bad for the environment; it’s the way we tend to make and use them that’s the problem.” And while she decries toxic chemicals and the disposable mindset that leads to wasteful single-use disposable packaging and products, she also recognizes the benefits of plastics when used in a responsible manner.

Looking for solutions, Freinkel explains technologies like bio-plastics and oxo-degradable plastics — you know, the ones with the mystery additives that cause them to break down. While she’s more hopeful than I about the promises of bio-plastics like PHA made by bacteria inside plants, she’s also very skeptical of most environmental claims and very aware of the fact that any kind of plastic is only as safe as the chemicals added to it. At the end of the section on “green” plastics she (thankfully) concludes:

But the greening of Plasticville will require more than technological fixes. It also requires us to address the careless, and sometimes ravenous, habits of consumption that were enabled by the arrival of plastic and plastic money — a symbol for which there is surely no better symbol than the maxed-out credit card. It means grappling with what historian Jeffrey Meikle called our “inflationary culture,” one in which we invest more of our psychological well-being in acquiring things while also considering them of such low value “as to encourage their displacement, their disposal, their quick and total consumption.”

And then she asks:

What would it be like to turn your back on that culture — or at least the part of it involving plastic?

And that’s where I come in… showing that it is possible to live with a lot less plastic. Sure, Freinkel portrays me as extreme. But then, I describe myself that way. I have never said I expect everyone else to live as radically as I do, but that I simply want to show what’s possible. And Freinkel writes that taking the challenge to collect and examine her own plastic waste for a week helped her become more conscious of her shopping choices.

Looking at the pile of trash I accumulated in a week — 123 items, which was probably more than Terry generated in a year [it wasn’t!] — a few things became clear. One was how often my purchases were made on the basis of convenience. Do I really need to buy zucchini from Trader Joe’s, where it comes nestled on a plastic tray, covered in plastic wrap, with little plastic stickers adorning every individual squash?

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story is a fantastic read, well-researched, interesting, and informative. But it is not prescriptive. While it ends with a general call to action, it provides no recipe for action, either on the personal or collective level. And that’s fine. Freinkel is a journalist, not an activist. That’s where my book (Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too) comes in.

 

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71 Comments on "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story Book Review"

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I took this book out of our town’s library. Its so good, I bought a gently used copy on Amazon. Thank you for diligently reviewing it Beth. I also took your book out of the library and read it too.

You know, it’s so easy to dismiss the plastic concern because we get reassurances on its safety and recyclability at every turn. Then books like this (and your upcoming book) come out – and wham! There’s no way you can ignore how big a problem plastic is. Thanks for sharing your review of this book, and I can’t wait until yours comes out!

I first heard Susan speak on NPR and I remember listening and reaching for a pen to write her name down. She was articulate and inspiring. I still haven’t read her book. Thanks to your review it has moved to my short list!

can’t think of anyone more perfect to be included in her book…and i really love the idea of a day by day look at the plastics around us…thank you also for sharing her view was journalistic vs a call to action – a good distinction.

Hi Bill–you’re not the only guy around, although I’ve only noticed the two of us, so far. I’m new here, and probably in another minority, too: I think there are appropriate uses for plastic, and inappropriate. For instance, non-compostable, throw-away plastic bags are inappropriate. Depending on the impact and source, compostable ones _may_ not be. Not sure on that. I think _appropriate_ types of plastic, made in an environmentally sound manner, are an appropriate use of petroleum. Burning a non-renewable resource that adds to global warming, and local pollution, is ridiculous! But plastic doesn’t have to contribute to pollution if… Read more »
Thank you for this gem of a site. I am brand new to it today, but plan to come back again and again. My family sort of hates my “green” ideas. They are very much the products of convenience and I’m constantly trying to change that, though I’m not great at it myself. I’ll keep trying though. And I’m suprised that I think I’m one of very few men responding here. I didn’t read every reply to this post, but I didn’t see a single male voice as I scrolled through. We need to spread the mentality to both sexes… Read more »
Like so many other people on have said, I have learned SO much from you in these past months I have been on my (never-ending) green kick. You are the premiere site that I turn to when I have a question. I guess the biggest thing that I have learned is the importance of not “buying” green and “consuming” green. The question to ask is not “What do I buy to be environmentally friendly?” It’s about reusing what you have. I love how you always encourage people to reuse what they have before moving on to a better product. I… Read more »
I’ve learned a lot about plastic from this blog. The most important is that “recycling” plastic – which, for years, I thought I was doing – is actually, in most cases, an illusion. This really has pushed me to reduce my consumption and reuse whatever plastic bags/ containers that I inevitably accumulate, even when that comes at the expense of convenience. One question I have is: if you wear contact lenses, how can you limit or reduce your plastic consumption? I’m seriously considering getting Lasiks done because I’ve realized that it’s near impossible to take care of my eyes (and… Read more »
Well now, let me see. You know what I didn’t expect to learn? That you could have a full belly of plastic and starve at the same time. That never clicked for me. (By the way, lesson hammered home today when I was picking up styrofoam at the beach and kept reaching for seashells instead. Plastic blends in.) And I’m not sure if this counts as a question about plastic, but how is it possible that we haven’t come up with a way to turn plastic back into oil? Or have we, and I just don’t know about it?
Hi Beth, 1) Most importantly, I’ve now learned that your blog exists, thanks to Jay and Chantal at Life Without Plastic! Their website https://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/ is both a source for great information and a resource for fabulous alternatives to plastic. 1a) I also see that you allow other than US residents, i.e. Canadians to enter your prize draw for Susan Freinkel’s book – the publisher doesn’t. Thank you! 2) Along with increasing awareness of plastic alternatives, I wish there was also an increasing awareness of over consumption in general. Alternatives alone won’t make the shift that we all so desperately need… Read more »
The most important thing that I receive from this page is the encouragement to keep going. I’m fourth generation, sustainable, family farmer and in our very conservative community, I’m considered hippy fringe (: This is a very rural community and it seems that anyone who questions the “green/chemical” revolution is spreading blasphemy. It helps tremendously to know that all of my washing, reusing, and repurposing is both vitally important and that I’m not alone. I am leaving our land clean and productive for the next generation. My most pressing question is, how do I gently encourage folks not to give… Read more »

I have really appreciated your blog as we have moved toward less and less plastic in our house. One thing I’ve learned that I didn’t know was that the lining of cans for beans could have BPA. Hello dried beans! We recently started recycling everything plastic – taking what isn’t taken at the curb to a recycling center. My question is how we can advocate for more local recycling options.
Thanks for your work!

What I’ve learned: that plastics ingredient lists are secret, how easy it is to make homemade mustard, and so many other things. My question: What do I do about kids art supplies? particularly tape and glue. We won’t buy any more glue sticks since they more package than glue, but the white glue is made from plastic and so is scotch tape. Is masking tape plastic? In response to the question about floss holders: we have plastic but reusable floss holders to wind the kids floss on. It makes a huge difference. The dentist gave them to us, because the… Read more »
Oh my…so much I’ve learned from you – and so much effect you’ve had on my life, from working to refuse plastics (I’d not heard the “refuse” part of the 3 R’s till I found you) to providing interesting alternatives to single or multi-use plastics (I have aluminum or stainless bottles and mugs now when before, I used a PLASTIC reusable – yes, I learned). Just today, I saw your Easter Egg post, and found the pattern for knitted eggs – believe me, they’ll be making an appearance next year in my home with twigs brought down in the summer… Read more »

I learned that you can ask for meat to be put into your container at Whole Foods and no… the world doesn’t end if you put yourself out there.

For my question… Is this a frustration or a question? How can you deal with food allergies in a non-plastic free way without totally inconveniencing yourself?

For example, I bought milk in a glass container. I found out I can’t drink milk any more. Must I really grind my own almonds to make almond milk or can I forgive myself for just buying it in a tetra pak?

I learned that the old saying is true – one person can make a difference.

Lynn asked about paintballs and I believe I can answer that one (Beth correct me if you know differently of course) – my husband plays paintball so I have grilled him about this quite a bit :-) He assured me that the paint most commonly used is water-soluble and non-toxic, and the shells are made from the same paint. This way, they “go away” once it rains. I can’t tell you if the paint and shells are truly biodegradable and harmless to wildlife and the environment, but water soluble is something at least.

That sounds like a book I will definitely be reading – thanks for sharing about it. I would love to be entered. I have learned many things reading this blog, but what sticks in my mind now is that synthetic clothing is plastic and therefore dryer lint is also plastic – it makes sense, but it never occurred to me before I read one of your posts. It is also great to learn about all the companies making and stocking plastic-free products. Which is where my question comes in – not really a question, but I often find myself looking… Read more »
The other comments detail so many of the areas in which I’ve experienced an awakening (plastic-lined milk cartons, BPA-lined cans, the false hope of plastics recycling, etc.). What I’ve learned the most, however, goes beyond some specific fact. Now I’m having more expansive discussions with my 10-year old about plastics, purchasing, and our own ethical vs. convenience conundrums. Like our “car-free” days, these discussions and the actions that emerge, are part of a little collaborative learning experience we call “life.” I am bolstered knowing that the future is touched by every little exchange. I freeze fruit (and can some) when… Read more »
Came here from a FB post on Susan Freinkel’s wall and found the plastic trash challenge intriguing enough to try. I’ve tried to minimize my plastic use for some time, and want to see how it compares to others. Maybe not minimize our use, as is the goal here, but to optimize it in terms of health and environment. I found the mention of PHA new, and interesting enough to google. In my effort to minimize BPA and phthalate exposure I’ve stopped using throw away plastic wrap where possible, and started to use “wax paper” in its place. Problem is,… Read more »

Thanks everyone for your help with the mosquito issue. I also heard on my public radio about the upcoming alternative that smells like grapefruit.

I will check out the oils. I am a very active rock climber, so alas the mosquito net would not help me out.

Thanks again everyone!

I was fascinated by the information about hormonal changes correlated with plastic medical equipment, especially for babies. I hadn’t considered that before. (though, in all, I consider it “worth it” for saving their lives!) I’m keenly interested in non-plastic food preservation ideas. The only two I know of are wrapping frozen goods, especially meat, in butcher paper rather than plastic wrap, and the Tattler line of canning jar lids. Though, to be precise, I’m not sure it’s plastic that’s in/on regular canning jar lids…. Anywho, I heard Susan interviewed last night on American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and tonight on Public… Read more »
1) I have learned so much from your blog, but if I had to pick something, I’d have to say that something I love most are all the practical alternative suggestions for plastic products. For example, I don’t think I was aware of reusable straws before starting to read your blog. 2) Not sure whether that’s feasible for you to do, but I’d love a roundup of plastic-free baby products, and advice on smart choices for those where plastic can’t be avoided (think car seats). I’m just researching purchases for my first baby, and have found some non-plastic things, but… Read more »

1) I learned that cans were lined with plastic! I can’t believe I never realized that before.

2) Plastic really is so very pervasive! All the medications we take are in plastic bottles, etc. How can we get online pharmacies to forgo plastic?

And: I recently donated all my Rubbermaid plastic storage items to Goodwill, replacing them with glass storage bowls instead.

Whether or not I win the book, I thought this was a great opportunity to thank you for opening up my eyes. I always thought I was pretty aware of things, but after reading your blog, I looked again. “Look, the emperor has no clothes!” I became aware of how invasive plastic things were in our lives. I have always been a person who cooks at home and shops the food co-op. I never thought about the bags from the frozen food aisle. We don’t eat dairy so I wasn’t concerned with the milk or yogurt containers. Now, when I… Read more »
I have learned so much through your blog, Beth, and have made a lot of changes in my home for my family through your inspiration. I also love your kitty stories :) We have always used Swheat Scoop for our cat and thankfully he seems to love it. No kitty oopsies on the floor! Anyway, most recently I learned that all plastics have the potential to leach chemicals, even if they are “BPA free.” My question is really more of a huge issue that I don’t know how to address. My 7 yr. old son is a kidney transplant recipient… Read more »
i’m a new reader, but the big thing that i learned (and feared) was that bpa-free products many times had MORE estrogenic effects! i’ve been really wanting to reduce/eliminate the plastic in my house… but my husband, who works in an industry that requires him to investigate plastic research, fights me a bit. he looks into the TINY details of the research as rationalization as well as it’s just “hard” to eliminate it all. (and expensive when looking for replacements). i’m hoping this site will help me get more effort and cooperation from him. now my question, while more of… Read more »

1) That tetrapaks and ice cream containers were lined with plastic. Yuck!

2) How to freezing all the produce I grow in my garden to save for winter without plastic.

1) Reading your blog has made me more informed about the chemicals in plastics and the prevalence and pervasiveness of plastic everywhere. Now I also more conscious when shopping so that I avoid items with plastic packaging as much as I can. Your blog also helps me question my values and unexamined assumptions. I ask myself where my allegiances lie, to the land base I live on with responsibility to all living things including future generations or to mindless consumer culture. I feel stronger and more connected to the land. What I do or not do matters and has consequences.… Read more »

1)I learned that plastic is EVERYWHERE and that recycling is really downcycling. And how easy it really is to refuse to let plastic into you life.

2) I too need alternatives for freezer containers. I’ve had two glass jars w/ soup crack in the freezer despite plenty of room left for expansion.

I learned everything from you, Beth. Sounds amazing.

There are actually two things I learned from your blog that stand out, and have changed how I shop/eat/live – about chemicals in detergents and shampoos, and about plastic lining in tin cans. That launched us into canning a lot of our own food, which is cheaper and healthier, as well as better for the environment. A question I still have about plastic…hmm…how to manage some things, like freezing our own food, without plastic. There is a lot of plastic in a freezer. I’m sure the benefit of a low-draw freezer keeping local backyard organic food (vs. growing with tractors… Read more »

It’s hard to mention just one thing I’ve learned from you Beth – so many things. I think one that sticks with me is the term single-use plastics – things like drinking straws to be exact …and how MANY items we have like that in our life that are throw away. I’d like to know why we can’t return our plastic bottles from shampoo for re-use directly to the manufacturer.

I’ve mostly learned awareness. I was already a stainless-steel-carrying, reusable-bag-using, anti-canned-food kind of woman … but I had never thought about drinking straws. I’ve stopped using them.

I have been reading here for only a few months, so I don’t know if this had been addressed … but when I was telling my mom about this site (and how fascinating and awesome I thought it was), her first question was, “How does she buy batteries?” Um. I don’t know. Things like spray bottles which come in metal, but the spray mechanisms are always plastic.

The book sounds wonderful! One thing I’ve learned from you, Beth, is that BioBags shouldn’t go in the landfill because they release methane in an anaerobic environment. One question that I still have is about alternatives. I have moderate-to-severe RSI in both arms, and sometimes I just plain cannot cook. Physically can’t. It makes me feel really helpless sometimes because it’s so hard to avoid plastic when you can’t just buy fresh ingredients and cook with them. I’ve been gritting my teeth and flushing my eco-street cred down the drain as I scatter nonrecyclable waste behind me, but I hate… Read more »
Beth, I was shocked like many, about chewing gum, and specifically from this blog post…I never thought about the long-term damage of the “life-saving” plastics to babies in the Neonatal Units. I look forward to reading more about it in the book. Anytime I have questions about plastics and non-plastic replacements, I scroll through your blog for answers. One questions I have (really a gripe) is about the crazy amount of plastic used in packaging. Why do companies spend so much money on packaging? Why would a person buy a pair of scissors that were packaged in so much plastic… Read more »

I didn’t know about glass and steel straws until I read this blog! Lots more significant things too (like the secret additives in plastics), but that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

My question, what do you think are the best policy strategies for dealing with the plastics problem?

Hi, I am a new reader of the blog, but even so I have already made myself more aware of all the plastic we consume. I already did the cloth bags and recycle our plastic so I felt ok about that; however reading the blog has made me actually try to avoid buying things in plastic whenever possible to try to avoid consuming it in the first place. My question is, is there anyone in politics at this point who has any ambition to try to change laws on plastic use, manufacture etc? Keep up the good work, you are… Read more »
Thank you so much for this blog. It has made me aware of how much single-use plastic I use and how to eliminate it – no more plastic bags, I am making my own hair, skin care and cleaning products, no more disposable razors, etc. It has also helped me to stay away from cheap plastic toys for my kids. I have to think about where the toy will eventually end up (I just need to get the grandparents on board…) My question: what do you do about dental floss? This may sound gross, but we re use ours until… Read more »

Oh … oops. A question I still have about plastics use: I’m still stumped on what to freeze my food in if not plastic. I know you’ve talked about it some, but I still haven’t managed to change that one habit.

Ah Beth,

You’ve taught us all so much. I’ve learned so many things from you, from your site, and from links attached to this site that it’s really hard to narrow things down. But the inspiration I got from you to make my own travel utensil set has made me very happy and helped me make a physical statement to people about plastic usage.

I also have stopped using straws when out and purchased Dharma Glass straws instead. Not that we need straws, but they are nice to have on occassion.

Thanks, again, Beth. For everything you do.

Tracey in #6:
I used an extra bedsheet for my shower curtain by folding it over and sewing about 4 inches below the fold all the way across to create a pocket for the curtain rod to go through. If it gets grungy it goes in the wash.

I was on a definite budget though… you can also buy shower curtains made of hemp, which apparently dries very fast. They are pricey, though.

Okay, back to reading these amazing comments…

I have learned so much from reading this blog!! Here are just a few changes I’ve made in my household: 1. I use shampoo and conditioner bars. 2. I buy glass-bottled milk, buttermilk and half-n-half. 3. I recently found yogurt sold in a glass bottle (very exciting!). 4. I buy everything I possibly can from the bulk bin section (unfortunately, the selection is still very limited). 5. I use cloth bulk bin bags, produce bags, and grocery bags. 6. I’ve stopped buying fruit (for example, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries) in plastic containers. 7. I use a Glass Dharma drinking straw.… Read more »

I have another question, if that’s allowed! :) Does anyone know where I can get a plastic free floss holder (i.e. a substitute for those horribly wasteful individual flossers)? I can’t believe someone hasn’t already made one out of stainless steel or something that I can use with my box of floss.

I want to get my kids to floss, but they’re too little to do it on their own and there’s no way they’d stand for having my hands in their mouth.

Thanks!
Sharon

Beth, thank you so much for this review! The primary thing I learned from this blog is to always be conscious of my behaviour. When I see a bottle of Naked juice (which I know from experience is delicious) I know stop and think about whether I truly need to buy something that is not only contained in plastic but (another fact I learned from your blog!) often poured into the bottle hot causing who knows what kind of chemicals to leach into it. A question I still have is what non-plastic reusable water bottle do you recommend? I have… Read more »
Beth, Could you pass this info on to Barb? : There was a great piece on Oregon Public Broadcasting today about natural alternatives to DEET that should become available to us over the next few years: In the meantime, so many of the aromatic oils you could find in glass bottles work well. Natural foods stores will likely carry non-toxic repellents that use essential oils as their main ingredients. Look to these to make your own or try theirs. I think you’ll find great success! For the contest: 1) I’ve learned so many things from the Blog and not just… Read more »
Wow this book sounds truly informative and helpful. I love reading on things that affect us so much, and in ways we don’t even realize sometimes. I think my first question is: Is it actually possible to live a plastic free life? I see plastic everywhere! I avoid it whenever I can but it seems to keep creeping in. They are so prevalent, and it seems so many things sneakily come packaged in them in some way. I am trying to hard to rid my own home of them, but some days it seems like they are everywhere! My computer… Read more »
I have learned that you can make a difference in everything you buy and do . i am stand for alternatives to plastic. I have also learned that just because plastic says BPA free doesnt mean its safe. I am looking forward to the book and it would be great to win it. I am gluten free so some things that I can eat come in plastic its like a double edge sword in the food world.. The other thing is storage containers. Stainless steel is great but out of my budget and I was going to buy a glass… Read more »

I learned about going poo-free on this blog and took the plunge at the beginning of the year. It’s been awesome — my hair feels so much better!

I still have quite a few questions about getting the plastic out of my life, and as I look around me and see objects that I can’t imagine living without — my smart phone, my computer, the glasses on my face! — I wonder how many scientists, business people and bureaucrats are actively working on ideas for for building these things without plastic. Anyone?

I’m looking forward to reading the book – maybe eve a free copy! I started reading your blog a few years ago when my cousing started her own blog with a friend – “Plastic is Forever.” I’ve learned so much, especially about all the hidden plastic lining cans, soy milk paks, etc. I am an RN and the amount of not only waste, but plastic waste we produce int he hospital is mind boggling. I’ve joined several green medicine groups and am aware of some of the alternatives available to plastic products. My question is how do we move this… Read more »
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