Plastic: A Toxic Love Story Paperback – 2 May 2011
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"It turns out that plastic is not only an ongoing environmental peril, but a compulsively interesting story. This well-reported and lively history helps us see the last decades in a different light. Buy it (with cash)."
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"" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Inside Flap
It turns out that plastic is not only an ongoing environmental peril, but a compulsively interesting story. Buy it (with cash). Bill McKibben, author of "Eaarth, " founder of 350.org" 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"Plastic built the modern world. Where would we be without pacemakers, polyester, computers, cell phones, sneakers, or chewing gum? (Plastic in gum? Yes!) But a century into our love affair with plastic, the romance is starting to fray. Plastics draw on dwindling fossil fuels, leach harmful chemicals, litter landscapes, and destroy marine life. And yet each year we use and consume more; we ve produced as much plastic in the past decade as we did in the entire twentieth century. We re trapped in an unhealthy dependence a toxic relationship. In this engaging and eye-opening book, journalist Susan Freinkel shows that we have reached a crisis point. She treks through history, science, and the global economy to assess the real impact of plastic on our lives. Freinkel tells her story through eight familiar plastic objects: comb, chair, Frisbee, IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card. Each one illuminates a different facet of our synthetic world, and together they give us a new way of thinking about a substance that has become the defining medium and metaphor of our age. 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." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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The second generation of synthetics came around 1907, with the accidental discovery of what was to become the first of the thermosetting plastics: Bakelite. Invented as a synthetic replacement for shellac in electrical insulation, Bakelite's toughness and ease of molding quickly found a home in telephone sets, radio cabinets, pipe stems, kitchenware and more. It could easily be tinted with the new synthetic dyes, producing the brilliant plastic Catalin radio sets of the 1930s. Unlike celluloid, which was seen as a substitute for natural materials, Bakelite was something new- a synthetic that had properties that simply weren't found in natural materials. It allowed for the creation of objects that simply weren't possible before.
World War Two saw an explosion in the production of various plastics- nylon, for parachute canopies, replaced the silk that was no longer obtainable from Japan and China. Teflon was invented to line the tubes of uranium processing plants to protect against the corrosive effects of uranium hexaflouride gas. GIs went to war with nylon combs. And tons of Bakelite went into electrical switches, instruments, and munitions. After WWII, the plastics industry exploded on to the consumer market. Industrial capacity for the creation of plastics resins and the invention of production technology made possible a raft of consumer products never before seen. And a population starved for consumer goods was ready to buy. Plastics showed up everywhere. Car seats, dashboards, exciting new furniture designs, refrigerator shelves, table radios, and the new synthetic fabrics flooded the market.For someone growing up in the 1950s, plastic was the symbol of the future- a space-age material that mad the impossible possible.
It wasn't just consumer goods. Industry and medicine discovered the wonders of these new materials. Disposable syringes and needles meant an end to the threat of cross contamination. Plastic tubing and bags made possible the heart lung machine, kidney dialysis, plasma separation, and bags that could be used to carry blood components into remote places of onto the battlefield. Surgeons were using synthetic suttees in place of silk and gut, and sewing synthetic patches onto damaged arteries.
But by the late 1960s, plastic was beginning to lose some of its shine. The new plastic consumer goods were so cheap, it didn't pay to fix them- you just threw them away. And discarded plastics were starting to pile up. Not just in dumps, but in parks, on beaches, in the ocean, and- well, everywhere. The invention of the PET plastic drinks bottle resulted in millions or billions of plastic bottle being discarded everywhere. What made it worse was that these bottle lasted pretty much forever. The new ecology movement started to see plastics as one of the great evils of human society, and if you were a hipster in the late 60s, just about the worst adjective you could apply to a person or thing was "plastic."
The oil shortages of the 1970s were another nail in plastic's coffin. Bakelite is still around, but the great majority of synthetics today come from compounds found in oil- a byproduct of the automative age. Author Freinkel relates an apocryphal story in which John D. Rockefeller, seeing ethylene waste gas burning off from open of his refineries, ordered his employees to find a use for it. Whether of not the story is true, ethylene gas is the raw material that goes into polyethylene, HDPE, LDPE, PET (the material soft drink bottles are made of) and much more. The plastics industry today accounts for roughly 10% of total US oil consumption.
Then in the 1990s came another concern. It seems that some of these wonder materials contain plasticizers and other components that can be leached out by heat or water. Some of these components mimicked natural endocrines found in humans and other animals. Discarded plastics were being identified as a possible cause of mutations found in frogs. The same plastics used help save premature babies might also be responsible for giving them cancer years later.
And thus began the latest plastics revolution- the creation of synthetic materials, ideally made from plant materials, that would biodegrade, and return to the ecosystem. In a sense, this was the industry coming full circle, since many of the first synthetics (cellulose, Rayon) were made from natural materials. But now materials scientists are genetically engineering bacteria to produce large quantities of new synthetics, tweaking the properties of naturally found materials. Everyone is now looking for something cheap, natural, and biodegradable, with no toxicity and zero net carbon debt.
There's much, much more to the story than I've outlined above, and author Susan Freinkle does a first rate job of relating everything from the technical issues to the social consequences of the plastics industry over the last century. Despite a few small errors (i.e., she says that nitrocellulose was "briefly" used as a "gunpowder substitute" when it's actually the main constituent of gun propellants today) she does a very good job of relating the technical issues in a non-technical way, and unlike some authors she does not neglect the economic issues that need to be dealt with. There's much to be learned here, all of it related in a manner that makes for compelling reading.
The author decided to spend a day without touching anything plastic. But she didn't make it too far. About 10 seconds, she estimates...since both the light switch and the toilet seat in the bathroom were made of plastic. So she changed the experiment into a list-making exercise and that day she wrote down 196 different plastic items that she touched. Of course, many of these items were non-durable items like plastic packaging. The next day she continued list-making with a similar tally of everything she touched that wasn't at least partially made of plastic. The non-plastic list only made it to 102 items.
This led to some reflection and a list of questions, which she attempts to answer in the book. Those questions include:
What is plastic?
Where does plastic come from?
How did we get so many plastic items in our lives without really trying?
What happens to plastics after we put them into a recycling bin?
Does plastic actually get recycled after it's picked up curbside?
How much of the plastic that the typical American discards is ending up in the ocean?
Should we stop using plastic shopping bags?
Is there a future for plastic in a sustainable world?
To explore the answers to these questions, the book is organized into separate chapters about eight common, everyday, relatively non-durable objects that are commonly made from plastic, including the comb, the stackable cafe chair, the Frisbee, the intravenous solution bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda pop bottle and the credit card.
Two of my favorite factoids in the book were:
In the 19th century plastics were actively promoted as a way to replace ivory from elephant tusks for use in billard balls and to replace hair comb materials that were coming from hawksbill turtle shells.
The rapid growth of plastics after World War II had a lot to do with their utility as a way to use the ever-increasing stream of petroleum refining by-products.
Overall it thought that the Pro's of this book were:
It's a good historical overview of plastic
The author acknowledges the paradoxes of the plastic industry
There is a good chapter explaining what the recycling numbers on plastic products indicate and where they came from
And there's an excellent notes section at the back of the book
And I thought the Con's of this book were:
No durable plastic items were examined
No full-scale solutions for the paradoxes of our huge reliance on non-durable plastic products were identified or examined
This is a riveting and easy to read look at a difficult topic for today's modern times. Now, we just need it to be made into one of those 1.5 hour documentaries!
Freinkel's book is packed with information on plastic: its history, chemistry, manufacturing, uses and disposal. Most of all the book tells how plastic has changed our lives -- from the first toy a baby plays with to the IV bag providing succor to the dying elderly. Plastic has not only provided us with things, it has changed our relationship to those things. Freinkel reminds us that we had to learn to throw plastic cups away. Plastic has turned us into the disposable society. It has pervaded our lives.
Plastic has also pervaded our environment. Traces of it are found in our blood, possibly causing early puberty in young girls and making other subtle changes. Plastic lighters, bottles, caps and other detritus bob around in the ocean for years. Plastic bags and cups skitter across the landscape and clog our storm sewers.
I was struck by the irony that plastic was developed as a way to use the byproducts of petroleum refining. What was once a waste became a useful product and is now a waste again.
Freinkel excels in her discussion of possible solutions to the physical, cultural and political barriers to solving the problem. She points out that although manufacturers promote recycling to help assuage our consciences when we buy plastic, recycling isn't easy. The plethora of different polymers, all requiring different recycling processes and the difficulty of separating the many products in the waste stream is a major problem. Then there's the cost of transporting the stuff to the recycler. I've always been proud of the recycling ethic in Seattle, my home town, but after reading "Plastic", I realize we can do that here because of location on the coast with inexpensive shipping to China. Farther inland, recycling is even more challenging.
The solution Freinkel pushes is Extended Producer Responsibility. We need to put the cost of disposal into the product.
"Plastic: A Toxic Love Story" is a fascinating book and a valuable resource for anyone interested in tackling this problem. Read it and act.
I appreciate that the author was, unlike many books about plastics, either all pro-plastic, or an environmental extremist. There are clearly both benefits and risks with plastics.
The book is organized around both facts and re-told stories of common plastic items. That organization makes it a bit easier to read what might otherwise be academic. I believe the author has really written this text for consumers. And for that purpose, it is perfectly written.
Everyone should read this book because it will heighten your awareness and knowledge of different kinds of plastics and their benefits and drawbacks.
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