The surprising story of plastic and its effects on design, business, our health and environment, politics, and the broader culture—all through the lens of eight iconic items
Plastic built the modern world. Where would we be without bike helmets, baggies, toothbrushes, and pacemakers? But a century into our love affair with plastic, we’re starting to realize it’s not such a healthy relationship. Plastics draw on dwindling fossil fuels, leach harmful chemicals, litter landscapes, and destroy marine life. As journalist Susan Freinkel points out in this engaging and eye-opening book, we’re nearing a crisis point. We’ve produced as much plastic in the past decade as we did in the entire twentieth century. We’re drowning in the stuff, and we need to start making some hard choices.
Freinkel gives us the tools we need with a blend of lively anecdotes and analysis. She combs through scientific studies and economic data, reporting from China and across the United States to assess the real impact of plastic on our lives. She tells her story through eight familiar plastic objects: comb, chair, Frisbee, IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card. Her conclusion: we cannot stay on our plastic-paved path. And we don’t have to. Plastic points the way toward a new creative partnership with the material we love to hate but can’t seem to live without.
I n t r o d u c t i o n
In 1950, a Philadelphia toy company came out with a new accessory
for electric-train enthusiasts: snap-together kits of plastic
buildings for a place it called Plasticville, U.S.A. Sets of plastic
people to populate the town were optional.
It started as a sleepy, rural place where trains might roll past redsided
barns to pull into a village with snug Cape Cod homes, a police
department, a fire station, a schoolhouse, and a quaint white
church with a steeple. But over the years, the product line spread
into a bustling burb of housing tracts filled with two-story Colonials
and split-level ranch houses and a Main Street that boasted a bank,
a combination hardware store/pharmacy, a modern supermarket, a
two-story hospital, and a town hall modeled on Philadelphia’s historic
Independence Hall. Eventually Plasticville even gained a drivein
motel, an airport, and its own TV station, WPLA.
Today, of course, we all live in Plasticville. But it wasn’t clear to me
just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire
day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment
became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning
when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat
was plastic. I quickly revised my plan. I would spend the day writing
down everything I touched that was plastic.
Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page in my Penway
Composition Book (which itself had to be cataloged as partly plastic,
given its synthetic binding, as did my well-sharpened no. 2 pencil,
which was coated with yellow paint that contained acrylic). Here’s
some of what I wrote down as I made my way through my earlymorning
Alarm clock, mattress, heating pad, eyeglasses, toilet seat, toothbrush,
toothpaste tube and cap, wallpaper, Corian counter, light
switch, tablecloth, Cuisinart, electric teakettle, refrigerator handle,
bag of frozen strawberries, scissors handle, yogurt container, lid
for can of honey, juice pitcher, milk bottle, seltzer bottle, lid of cinnamon
jar, bread bag, cellophane wrapping of box of tea, packaging
of tea bag, thermos, spatula handle, bottle of dish soap, bowl,
cutting board, baggies, computer, fleece sweatshirt, sports bra,
yoga pants, sneakers, tub containing cat food, cup inside tub to
scoop out the kibble, dog leash, Walkman, newspaper bag, stray
packet of mayo on sidewalk, garbage can.
“Wow!” said my daughter, her eyes widening as she scanned the rapidly
By the end of the day I had filled four pages in my notebook. My
rule was to record each item just once, even those I touched repeatedly,
like the fridge handle. Otherwise I could have filled the whole
notebook. As it was, the list included 196 entries, ranging from large
items, like the dashboard of my minivan — really, the entire interior
— to minutiae, like the oval stickers adorning the apples I cut up
for lunch. Packaging, not surprisingly, made up a big part of the list.
I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled
life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural
fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said
my home harbors less plastic than the average American’s — mainly
for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself? The
next day I tracked everything I touched that wasn’t made of plastic.
By bedtime, I had recorded 102 items in my notebook, giving me a
plastic/nonplastic ratio of nearly two to one. Here’s a sample from the
first hour of the day:
Cotton sheets, wood floor, toilet paper, porcelain tap, strawberries,
mango, granite-tile countertop, stainless steel spoon, stainless steel
faucet, paper towel, cardboard egg carton, eggs, orange juice, aluminum
pie plate, wool rug, glass butter dish, butter, cast-iron griddle,
syrup bottle, wooden breadboard, bread, aluminum colander,
ceramic plates, glasses, glass doorknob, cotton socks, wooden
dining-room table, my dog’s metal choke collar, dirt, leaves, twigs,
sticks, grass (and if I weren’t using a plastic bag, what my dog deposited
amid those leaves, twigs, and grass).
Oddly, I found it harder and more boring to maintain the nonplastic
list. Because I’d pledged not to count items more than once, after
the first flood of entries, there wasn’t that much variety — at least
not when compared with the plastics catalog. Wood, wool, cotton,
glass, stone, metal, food. Distilled further: animal, vegetable, mineral.
Those basic categories pretty much encompassed the items on
the nonplastic list. The plastic list, by contrast, reflected a cornucopia
of materials, a dazzling variety of the synthetica that has come to constitute
such a huge, and yet strangely invisible, part of modern life.
Pondering the lengthy list of plastic in my surroundings, I realized
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? Looking over the list I could see
plastic products that I appreciated for making my life easier and more
convenient (my wash-and-wear clothes, my appliances, that plastic
bag for my dog’s poop) and plastic things I knew I could just as easily
do without (Styrofoam cups, sandwich baggies, my nonstick pan).
I’d never really looked hard at life in Plasticville. But news reports
about toxic toys and baby bottles seemed to suggest that the costs
might outweigh the benefits. I began to wonder if I’d unwittingly ex-
posed my own children to chemicals that could affect their development
and health. That hard-plastic water bottle I’d included in my
daughter’s lunch since kindergarten has been shown to leach a chemical
that mimics estrogen. Was that why she’d sprouted breast buds at
nine? Other questions quickly followed. What was happening to the
plastic things I diligently dropped into my recycling bin? Were they
actually being recycled? Or were my discards ending up far away in
the ocean in vast currents of plastic trash? Were there seals somewhere
choking on my plastic bottle tops? Should I quit using plastic
shopping bags? Would that soda bottle really outlive my children and
me? Did it matter? Should I care? What does it really mean to live in
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.* And rather than making
up a single family of materials, they’re more a collection of loosely
I got a glimpse of the nearly inexhaustible possibilities contained
in that one little word when I visited a place in New York called
Material ConneXion, a combination of a consultancy and a materials
larder for designers pondering what to make their products out
of. Its founder described it as a “petting zoo for new materials.” And
I did feel like I was in a tactile and visual wonderland as I browsed
some of the thousands of plastics on file. There was a thick acrylic
slab that looked like a pristine frozen waterfall; jewel-colored blobs
of gel that begged to be squeezed; a flesh-toned fabric that looked and
felt like an old person’s skin. (“Ugh, I’d never want to wear anything
like that,” one staffer commented.) There were swatches of fake fur,
green netting, gray shag rug, f...
—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth, founder 350.org"A must-read, and a fun-read, for anyone who wonders how our society became so plastics-saturated and who wants to do something about it."
—Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff"In a world glutted and fouled with fake plastic crap we never missed during nearly our entire history, Susan Freinkel's timely book on the subject is the real thing. No animals or children were harmed by its writing, I'm sure—but thanks to her diligence, a whole lot of them just might be saved."
—Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us
"Plastic is everywhere, and Susan Freinkel explains why. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story is gracefully written and deeply informative."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe"The first step to creating change is understanding, and the first step to understanding anything to do with plastic is reading Susan Freinkel’s compelling, much-needed, and truly brilliant book."
—David de Rothschild, Leader of the Plastiki Expedition"Who’d have thought that combs, Frisbees and lighters could have such secret histories and such disturbing futures? Susan Freinkel’s page-turner brings together history, science and culture to help us understand the plastic world that we have wrought, and has become part of us. Although we should all worry that plastics will persist for centuries, Plastic deserves to endure for years to come."
—Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing"Susan Freinkel’s book exponentially increased my desirous love and my hate for plastic. What a great read—rigorous, smart, inspiring, and as seductive as plastic itself."
—Karim Rashid, Designer"What is plastic, really? Where does it come from? How did my life become so permeated by synthetics without my even trying?" Surrounded by plastic and depressed by the political, environmental, and medical consequences of our dependence on it, Freinkel (The American Chestnut) chronicles our history with plastic, "from enraptured embrace to deep disenchantment," through eight household items including the comb, credit card, and soda bottle (celluloid, one of the first synthetics, transformed the comb from a luxury item to an affordable commodity and was once heralded for relieving the pressure on elephants and tortoises for their ivory and shells). She takes readers to factories in China, where women toil 60-hour weeks for $175 a month to make Frisbees; to preemie wards, where the lifesaving vinyl tubes that deliver food and oxygen to premature babies may cause altered thyroid function, allergies, and liver problems later in life. Freinkel's smart, well-written analysis of this love-hate relationship is likely to make plastic lovers take pause, plastic haters reluctantly realize its value, and all of us understand the importance of individual action, political will, and technological innovation in weaning us off our addiction to synthetics. (Apr.)
"An informative treatise on our complicated and dependent relationship with plastic...Freinkel presents a balanced, well-researched investigation into a controversial and versatile human creation." --Kirkus"Susan Freinkel had me from the minute I finished reading about her attempt to try to live without plastic for a week...Ms. Freinkel has penned a fascinating—and at times extremely disturbing—book about material that has literally invaded and, as her research reveals, infected every aspect of modern life."--New York Journal of Books"I have rarely, if ever, come across a book that I would describe as "perfect." However, after finishing Plastic, I was convinced that the appellation might well be accurate, not only for American Chestnut, but possibly for Plastic as well." --James Arnett, The Brooklyn Rail
"Susan Freinkel's book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story" is evenhanded, thorough, riveting and often lyrical." --Cleveland Plain Dealer"Evenhanded investigation."--Salon"It's impossible to read her book without developing an appreciation for and a concern about the role that plastic plays in our lives."--The Columbus Dispatch"Exhaustively researched and extremely readable, this eye-opening book has the potential, even, to influence a cultural change." --Kelly Roark, NewCity Lit"Susan Freinkel's book is an even-handed, thorough, riveting and often lyrical biography of plastics, also full of eccentric human players"--Star Tribune
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