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Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel

2011/06/10

In the preface to this book, the author resolves to go through an entire day without touching anything made of plastic, but after the first ten minutes, realizes that this is impossible, and instead ends up with four pages listing all the things she has used which are made of plastic. She uses the history of some of these items to tell the story of plastic: a comb, chair, Frisbee, IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card; a chapter is devoted to each, and looks at the origins of the word “plastic,” its’ development through history, and the increasing use and discovery of new uses. One story that she uses to demonstrate the effect plastic has had on consumers is a literary example from O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a young woman longs for a set of tortoiseshell combs, which, with the innovation of plastics, could now be purchased by anyone, since “celluloid (plastics) helped spread a taste for luxury — or at least the look of luxury — to those who’d never been able to entertain fantasies of the finer life. But even more important, it helped fuel a growing demand for things, period” (19). However, Freinkel also argues the positive changes that plastics have made — life-saving, sterile products used in hospitals, pacemakers, prosthetic limbs. But even these, she notes, may cause harm: “the vinyl plastic typically used in IV bags and tubing contains a softening chemical that can block production of testosterone and other hormones” (84). She also looks at the evolution of the single-use plastic bag, and the politics which surround the recent banning of their use in many cities. She also looks at biodegradable options, and interviews people who have decided to avoid or go without plastics.

The author includes a list of plastics at the end of the book, detailing types and common uses. There is also an extensive list of citations and other works for those interested in further reading. A casual reader might argue that this is a very biased book — obvious even from the subtitle — and they would be right. Environmentalists and other green-minded folks will embrace this book, while the unconvinced may end up writing it off as another alarmist attempt by tree-huggers.

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