2011-04-30 "'Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,' by Susan Freinkel" book review by David Zax from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
Before the Second World War, worldwide consumption of plastic was practically negligible. Today, we consume 600 billion pounds of it each year. We've made more of it in the past decade than in all the years that preceded it. There is plastic in your car, in your clothes, in your children's toys; odds are there are traces of it in your body. The story of how this material of our own invention has come to invade every aspect of our lives - sometimes for better, often for worse - is the subject of San Francisco writer Susan Freinkel's new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."
The challenges of writing a book such as this one are made clear in its appendix. Titled "Cast of Characters," it tabulates the book's dramatis personae - a handy cheat sheet for any reader of a saga spanning multiple decades and continents. But in "Plastic," the characters have an array of names to rival those in the most confounding Russian novel: polyethylene, polystyrene, polyurethane, polycarbonate, polypropylene and so on.
Freinkel's central challenge is to make this cast of polys vivid. Fortunately, she has struck upon an ingenious organizational scheme: Each chapter tells the story of a particular object, its history and its significance. An exploration of the plastic comb, one of the oldest incarnations of the material, serves to introduce us to the aura of pure promise that surrounded plastic like a halo in its early years.
Plastic was the material to liberate us, in more ways than one. To the conservationist, it spared us the need to hunt more ivory or tortoiseshell; to the democrat, it brought abundance and even a kind of opulence to the lower classes; to the feminist - or, at least, postwar readers of women's magazine's like House Beautiful - it meant an end to entire subsets of household chores. "Plastics are here to free you from drudgery," chirped that magazine in 1947, a sanguinity it maintained in 1953, when it promised: "You will have a greater chance to be yourself than any people in the history of civilization."
A meditation on the Frisbee serves to explore how plastic became "the medium of play." Another chapter examines how the same material can at once be saving our lives and potentially doing our endocrine systems harm. An investigation of the disposable lighter is an occasion to criticize the idea of single-use products and to vividly render the severe problem of ocean-borne debris. The plastic bag offers a window into recent political battles over plastic, while the plastic bottle prompts a romp through the convoluted world of recycling (most plastics recycled in San Francisco, we learn, end up being processed in China).
When you write about something so ubiquitous as plastic, you must be prepared to write in several modes, and Freinkel rises to this task: Sometimes "Plastic" is a work of cultural history; sometimes, a work of business reporting; sometimes, an environmentalist screed. Where Freinkel is perhaps most at home is as a science writer. She manages to render the most dull chemical reaction into vigorous, breathless sentences like this one: "I tried to imagine the molecules roller-coastering through the three-quarter-mile-long circuit of pipe, pulling closer and closer together, lining up, forming new bonds, gaining weight and mass until they dropped out of their airy gaseous state and pooled into a liquid resin."
Freinkel's cheeky "Cast of Characters" notwithstanding, molecules, of course, aren't the only figures in her book. As her subtitle, "A Toxic Love Story," suggests, there are people, too: the other end of this troubled tale of love. Freinkel manages to ferret out some of the odder plastic enthusiasts, living and dead: the factory worker who feels a surge of pride each time he encounters a Ziploc bag, the homeless scavenger whose philosophical system combines Buddhism and paranoia, the married couple who fell in love over a shared passion for making art from plastic litter, and the Frisbee mogul who had his ashes molded into the toys his company made ("He wanted to come and rest on a roof somewhere, just out of reach, so he could bathe in the sun," says an admirer in remembrance).
Yet if there is something pathological in the way these people relate to plastic, it is only emblematic of a species-wide pathology. The central thesis of Freinkel's book is that while our relationship with plastic is a deeply flawed one (a toxic one, even), it's also one from which we have benefited greatly, and one we might yet manage to fix. Closing with the image of a New Jersey bridge - an actual, enduring, functional unit of infrastructure - constructed of recycled plastic, Freinkel entreats us to show the archaeologists who will judge us years hence "that we were a people with the ingenuity to make wondrous materials and the wisdom to use them well."