Susan Freinkel decided to go an entire day without touching anything plastic. She got out of bed, went into the bathroom – and changed her plan.
Toilet seats, toothbrushes, countertops, toothpaste tube, soap dispenser … plastic is everywhere. Like most of us, Freinkel knew next to nothing about this miracle of chemistry, its history, its many forms and uses. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story is the result of the author’s curiosity about a ubiquitous material that we all take for granted, and it is a far more compelling tale than you might expect.
“We became plastic people really just in the space of a single generation,” Freinkel points out “In 1960, the average American consumed about thirty pounds of plastic products. Today, we’re each consuming more than three hundred pounds of plastics a year…” While most of us despise those flimsy shopping bags and worry about the toxins leaching from bottles into our beverages, we are forced to admit that we are addicted to the stuff. In fact, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story could have been more appropriately subtitled A Love-Hate Story.
Freinkel chronicles the development of plastic and the multitude of polymers that allow us to have flexible bags and hard combs, heat resistant lighters and high-flying Frisbees. While plastic IV bags may be adding toxins to the saline solution, they are also far sturdier than the old glass bottles. Plastic is the only practical material for use in pacemakers and catheter tubing, as well as for a host of other uses. But leaving aside the medical uses, do we really need plastic?
We survived without it for the greater part of human history, but in the space of a few decades our entire way of life has changed. Plastic is at the foundation of almost everything we use, need, and want. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story focuses on seven common items – molded chairs, combs, cigarette lighters, shopping bags, IV bags, beverage bottles, and Frisbees – a sampling of the everyday items that are possible only because of the development and evolution of plastic.
In the course of the book, Freinkel covers so many uses for plastic that the reader is forced to concede that we all live easier and more conveniently because of it. At the same time, Freinkel reminds us that those precious polymers use fossil fuels, emit toxins, pack landfills, and generally feed our disposable culture. We who consider ourselves crusaders for environmental protection will find ourselves hard-pressed to view plastic as pure evil after reading Freinkel’s book. In the competition between paper and plastic bags, for instance, we assume that paper is better for the environment. Paper is biodegradable, after all, while plastic litters forever. Freinkel gives us a different view of the choices: “…plastic bags take significantly less energy and water to produce, require less energy to transport, and emit half as many greenhouse gases in their production.”
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story doesn’t take sides; it merely presents a balanced look at the way we live and the innovations that make our lives easier even as they complicate our choices. It’s a comprehensive report, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking, and without doubt, it’s a book that everyone needs to read and ponder.