Married to plastic

  • Article by: SUSAN AGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2011 - 6:18 AM

Susan Freinkel examines how plastic became such an integral part of our lives -- and our garbage dumps.

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel

Look around you and count everything plastic. No, wait! This author tried that, then switched to counting what isn't.

That number is much smaller.

In my circle, I see pencils and books and a piece of granite on which I set my ceramic mug. But everything else -- including the computer I type on, the counter on which it sits, my lamp, my phone and even the insulin pump that keeps me alive -- is plastic. It has become our closest companion (sometimes even in sex), our champion raw material.

Susan Freinkel's book is an even-handed, thorough, riveting and often lyrical biography of plastics, also full of eccentric human players. She writes what so many of us know but haven't found words for: "We take natural substances created over millions of years, fashion them into products designed for a few minutes' use, and then return them to the planet as litter that we've engineered to never go away."

And: Plastic, unlike wood or stone or silk, "is essentially inscrutable, offering few clues as to its past or future."

Read it to understand how we let plastic take over. At first a godsend, it reduced dependence on shrinking natural resources, such as the shell of the hawksbill turtle (combs) or elephants' ivory (billiard balls and piano keys). Ultimately it democratized materialism, making everything available to everybody, cheaply. Now, the partner we've found in plastic "can rightly inspire both our deepest admiration and our strongest disgust."

To describe its history, wonders and dangers, journalist Freinkel reviews eight products: the comb, the chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle and the credit card. You will not look casually at any of them again.

You will learn trivia too depressing to share at parties:

• Each day across the world, Bic sells 5 million disposable lighters. Once empty, each lighter "cannot be used for anything else; it cannot be recycled, because of the fuel. It can only be thrown away." Indeed, she writes, "today half of all plastics produced go into single-use applications."

• U.S. manufacturers annually produce enough polyethylene -- favored for packaging -- to almost total the mass of every man, woman and child in the country.

Other trivia is fun:

• The first credit card, issued by Diners Club in 1951, was cardboard. Now, a credit card is 5 grams of PVC, equal to the weight of a nickel.

• The plastic in a Frisbee costs only a penny.

• Those cheap, ubiquitous white or green plastic chairs? In the industry they're "monoblocs."

Freinkel tells horror stories of the dangers in plastic we never imagined when we first cuddled up with it. But she also pays respect to recent efforts to reduce its harm, to encourage its recycling for re-use (especially successful in Europe), even to make it disintegrate in nature.

It disintegrates, however, into minuscule plastic particles which, we can guess from experience, will have their own issues. Sigh.

Susan Ager is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She is at susan@susanager.com.

  • PLASTIC: A TOXIC LOVE STORY

    By: Susan Freinkel.

    Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $27.

    Review: Surprisingly fascinating, Freinkel's biography of plastic is even-handed, lyrical and thorough.

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