In 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.