Are plastics good or bad? An author explains

When Susan Freinkel decided to write a book about plastic, she vowed to spend an entire day not touching the stuff. The plan lasted about ten seconds. After she woke up, she walked into the bathroom to use the toilet. She suddenly realized the seat was plastic, which meant she couldn’t sit down. Freinkel quickly changed plans. Instead of not touching plastic for a day, she would write down all the plastic things she touched in a day. The list came to 195 objects.

In recent years, plastic has gotten a bad rap, with some good reason. No one is happy about the giant garbage patches in the world’s oceans, or the six-pack rings that regularly lodge around wild animals. Yet plastics have also helped revolutionize medical care and other industries. Freinkel, a San Francisco author, explored the complexity of plastic in her just-released book,  Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. She will be talking about her findings tonight at Books, Inc on Fourth Street in Berkeley at 7:00 pm.

In Plastic, Frienkel uses eight plastic objects – the comb, the chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the Bic lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle, and the credit card – to explain the incredible popularity of the material, its benefits, and its downsides. It’s an important, yet entertaining, look at the issue.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about plastic?

A: In San Francisco, where I live, there’s been a lot of talk about the problems of plastic for several years. I decided to try getting through one whole day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became clear ten seconds into the appointed morning when I walked into the bathroom and realized the toilet seat was plastic. So instead, I spent the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. By day’s end I was staggered to see how thoroughly synthetic materials permeated my life. Like most people, I completely overlooked the extent to which modern life depends on plastic.
Q: What did you learn about plastic that most surprised you?

A: I was shocked to realize how fast our world became plasticized. In 1940, few plastics existed and scarcely anything was made of plastic. Today, there are thousands of different types of plastic and the average person is never more than three feet from something plastic. Even after years of research, I keep discovering plastic in unexpected places. For instance, the tiny beads in face scrubs are often made of plastic. Or here’s one for the yuck files: It’s also an ingredient of chewing gum.

Q: Why is the book subtitled “A Toxic Love Story”?

A: In researching the history of plastic, I was struck by how our relationship with it resembled a love affair gone bad. People initially were infatuated with these new materials, eager to use them in every possible way. In the ‘40s, pollsters found that “cellophane” was considered one of the most beautiful words in the English language, after “mother” and “memory.” By the 1970s, when I was a teenager, plastic had acquired a much worse reputation; it was the stuff of pink flamingos, shiny suits, tacky furniture. It was synonymous with shoddy and fake. Today we’re discovering truly serious problems because of our reliance on plastic—health hazards, wasting of resources, pollution. And yet every year, the amount of plastic produced and consumed goes up. We’re trapped in an unhealthy dependence, the hallmark of a toxic relationship.

Q: Does plastic really last forever?

A: The lifespan of a plastic depends on a lot of variables. Some plastics might last less than a year; others can persist for decades or possibly centuries—especially in the ocean. When I started the book in 2008, I took a pair of plastic grocery bags and tacked one onto the fence in my backyard and tied the other to the branch of a nearby tree. Three years later, the bag on the fence is still there looking scarcely the worse for wear. The bag in the tree is gone—but only because the tree died.

Q: Did working on the book change your feelings about plastic?

A: I became both more appreciative and more worried about plastic than I’d been before. I gained a better understanding of how plastic transformed fields like medicine, or transportation, or construction, making it possible to replace, say, a failing heart valve or build Boeing’s new super-lightweight Dreamliner plane. Early in my research I attended a convention on eco-friendly construction and discovered that “green” builders love Styrofoam because it’s a great insulator and is long-lasting. But many of the pluses plastic provides come with minuses. For instance, the qualities that make Styrofoam a friend of the environment in construction make it a disaster for the environment when it’s used to make disposable cups.

Q: With huge environmental issues like climate change or loss of biodiversity facing us, why should we care about plastic?

A: For one thing, we’ve produced more plastic in the last decade than the entire previous century. Yet a lot of it is going to trivial one-time uses, which is an incredible waste of a very valuable resource—and one that could be very useful in helping us address the problems posed by climate change. But I also think how we use plastic is symptom and symbol of significant issues, like our dependence on finite fossil fuels, or our daily exposure to hazardous chemicals. Something like the fight over the plastic shopping bag might seem trivial, yet when we grapple with the plastic shopping bag, we’re grappling with our whole throwaway culture—and the environmental problems that culture of convenience has created. Talking about plastics is really a conversation about just how deeply we want to transform the natural world, what kind of legacy we want to leave to the generations that succeed us.

Q: Have you changed the ways that you use plastic?

A: I am more conscientious about how I use plastic. I’ve really tried to reduce my dependence on single-use plastics, like bags, and to buy more in bulk when possible to reduce packaging waste. Because my family loves fizzy water, we bought a seltzer maker that comes with reusable bottles. The funny thing is how easy it is to overlook the place of plastic in your life—even when you’re writing a book on it! Two years into my research, I was making tea one day when I suddenly realized my electric teakettle was made of plastic. Given what I had learned about the ways heat can accelerate the breakdown of polymer bonds, which allows chemicals to leach out, I decided to swap it out for a metal teakettle.

Q: What are the five things people can do to improve their relationship with plastic?

A: Unlike many troubled marriages, this is one relationship that can be bettered without a lot of pain:

1. Refuse single-use freebies: Bring your own bag when shopping. Carry a travel mug for your daily caffeine fix. Tell your waiter you don’t need a straw.

2. Reuse where possible: Give that sandwich baggie a week’s workout; use that empty yogurt tub for leftovers.

3. Quit the bottled water habit. You can stay just as hydrated with a reusable bottle made of stainless steel, aluminum, or BPA-free plastic.

4. Learn what you can recycle. Find out what plastics your community recycler accepts. Explore other recycling resources: UPS stores will take back shipping peanuts; many grocery chains will take used bags and plastic film; many office supply chains will take back used printer cartridges.

5. Don’t cook in plastic. Heat can cause hazardous chemicals to leach out of some polymers, so transfer food to glass before microwaving.

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  • Jane Tierney

    Great article, great information, great book. Thanks for bringing it to us!

  • The Sharkey

    Great article! Lots of interesting information, and some really good ideas about cutting back on plastic use. I do my best to recycle & use reusable items, but it never crossed my mind that I should reject plastic straws at restaurants! Such a tiny thing, but it’s just as wasteful as disposable plastic silverware or bags.

  • Eva

    Fantastic article – thank you! Here a couple of things we implemented over the years:

    * Use in Soda Maker (uses cartridges) instead of buying sparkled water in plastic bottles.
    *Bring our own grocery bags, and use nylon bags and cotton bags for produce (both washable and long-lasting)
    *Use glassware for food storage
    * Re-use freezer bags many times (they can be easily washed)
    *scoop cat litter into brown paper bags and staple them – works great (after my husband commented that it was rather crazy to depose of something that breaks down easily in a plastic bag).
    *And, in terms of “stuff” decomposing – we put those corn utensils from Wholel Foods into our compost to see if they would actually decompose after several months as stated – 6 months later they looked like new

  • Nancy

    I use my clear supermarket plastic bags many times. Just rinse, dry and throw them into a canvas shopping bag. Berkeley Bowl bags will not object to carrying Monterey Market bok choy! (or Safeway’s, Andronico’s, Farmer’s Markets…for that matter)

  • Jake Johnson

    Great article, I commend you for your efforts of trying to avoid plastics altogether, but Dont let BPA free items fool you, this is why! Bisphenol S has become commonly used as a plasticizing agent following the widespread bans on the use of the related compound bisphenol A due to its estrogen-mimicking properties, and bisphenol S can now be found in a variety of common consumer products. However, bisphenol S has been shown to have similar estrogenic activity to bisphenol A, and so its main advantage in these applications is merely that it escapes the legal prohibition on bisphenol A and allows products containing bisphenol S to be labelled “BPA free”.