Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Win a copy of this book courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt!

Over the past decade, I’ve kind of become one of those annoying people who bothers her family and friends about recycling. When I learned to sew a couple of years ago, the first thing I made on my own was a gigantic tote bag to use for grocery shopping. I’ve started slacking a little more over the past year (south Texas really needs to step up its game to make recycling options more accessible), but I still definitely have issues about using plastic bags.

Before I read Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I thought I was already pretty aware of how much plastic exists in our daily environment. Then I read Freinkel’s little project: at the beginning of the book, she talks about how she tried to go a whole day without touching anything plastic. Before I read any further, I thought to myself, “hmm…I wonder how long I’d last.” I burst out laughing when it dawned on me: I was reading the book on my nook. It took Freinkel about as long to come to similar realizations, so she modified her project and decided to write down every plastic item she came in contact with that day. Only then did I realize just how pervasive plastic is. A small taste of her four-page list for the day: mattress, toilet seat, refrigerator handle, bread bag, scissors handle, packaging of tea bag, the oval stickers on your apples. Some of the items that really caught my eye: fleece sweatshirt, sports bra, yoga pants (and, as I learned later in the book, carpet).

It’s pretty remarkable how Freinkel manages to take what most people would think of as a dry subject–the history, production, and impact of plastic–and turn it into an absorbing, readable analysis. Rather than take a generalized approach, she focuses on eight specific items that have had a profound impact on the world’s relationship with plastic: the comb, the chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle, and the credit card. She talks about the items’ origins as well as their impact on people and the environment; as the items get more controversial, she also looks at the controversies from various angles.

The items Freinkel investigated were interesting choices. Of course, she had to include the usual suspects (plastic bottles and grocery bags), but reading about the history of some of the other items was enlightening. When people quickly got over the wonders of plastic after it was first introduced, plastic developed an image problem; people considered it cheap and low-brow (case in point: cheap plastic chairs). Plastic opened up a whole new world for the design community, however, resulting in iconic, decidedly high-brow items like the Panton chair and the Louis Ghost chair (both of which, might I add, I want).

Other items were a little more unsettling. There’s no question that the IV bag–and plastic in general–revolutionized medicine. But, as many people are aware, chemicals often leach out of certain plastics into whatever material they contain. The same holds true for IV bags and their tubing. The risk isn’t a big deal for most people but can be problematic for those who are hooked up to IVs for extended periods of time, such as vulnerable infants whose bodies are still developing. There are safe alternatives available, but the vast majority of hospitals do not use them.

Plastic is often talked about in regards to its impact on consumers and/or the environment, but little is usually said about the people producing it. One of the things I loved about this book is that Freinkel investigates this aspect of plastic production/consumption. Over a million people in the United States are directly involved in plastics. Twice that many work in plastics in China’s Guandong  Province, manufacturing toys and other plastic items sold in the United States. Though the working conditions vary from plant to plant, most Chinese workers labor for long hours and little pay.

But, of course, the thing that most captures the public’s attention in the war to scale back on plastic consumption is the environmental impact. Pictures like the one below, of a decomposing corpse of a Laysan albatross with its stomach full of pieces of plastic, are jarring (about a third of albatross chicks never make it to adulthood, and that’s not counting how many of their parents also die from ingesting plastic). There are massive gyres in the world’s oceans that are full of discarded plastic. The most famous one, more commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is about the size of Texas and swirls with tons of plastic that has been pulverized into tiny pieces by the waves. Pictures like this raise awareness, but as Freinkel discovers, fixing the problem is much more complex.

The chapter on my own personal nemesis, the grocery bag, was also really enlightening. Though I came to grudgingly respect its ingenious design, the chapter only solidified my distaste for the bag. Freinkel writes:

The bag can’t be repaired. It’s not easily recycled. And the number of times it can be reused is limited. Bags may see double-duty carrying lunch, picking up dog poop, and lining trash cans, but studies show a plastic bag has to be used at least four times to mitigate the environmental impact of all that goes into making and disposing of it.

Mmmm hmm.

The book is chock-full of all kinds of fascinating statistics (i.e., if you stacked up all the credit cards in use in the United States, they would be as tall as thirteen Mount Everests). Don’t let the subject matter fool you: the book is a page-turner. There were definitely moments that made me want to go and live somewhere off the grid, but the end of the book proves that it is possible to negotiate a balance and embrace plastic for all the wonders it provides while being more conscious of your plastic consumption.

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story is one of those books that I wish I could put into everyone’s hands. Lucky for one of you, the publisher has been nice enough to provide a copy for a giveaway. In addition, I’m including a cloth grocery bag (made my yours truly). It’s pretty much the exact shape and size of a plastic grocery bag, but, you know…better. 😉

To enter, fill out the form below. Giveaway is open to US residents only and ends at midnight on June 30, 2011. Good luck! This giveaway is now closed.

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story was published on April 18, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): ebook
Source: Publisher review copy via NetGalley
Pages: 336

2 thoughts on “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

  1. Wow – really really great review. I don’t often by drinks that have plastic rings, but when I do, I still remember my elementary school Weekly Reader that showed you how to cut them up so ducks, fish, and other animals wouldn’t get caught in them.

    Thanks so much for such an in-depth review. I may not have picked this up otherwise.

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