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11 december 2011

Plastic, as Susan Freinkel notes in her "toxic love story" about us and the substance, has only become ubiquitous since the 1960s – in other words, well within human memory, indeed within my lifetime. When I was a kid, in addition to onions on our belts, we played with wooden and metal toys. Not finely-crafted Swedish wooden and metal toys, mind you, but highly functional Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and Tootsietoys. (Though even then, plastic was creeping in to provide fine details in the far more desirable Matchbox cars.) Vacuum cleaners in the 1960s were made of metal, cloth, and paper, with rubber hoses and attachments, and bristles that had once been growing on an animal.

Toys are universally plastic now, and my vacuum cleaner, the legendary Dyson Cyclone, contains no metal at all except in its power cord. I still have a residual feeling that such plastic stuff is self-evidently crap, and will wear out much quicker than decent steel appliances; but of course the opposite is true. Plastic rusts not, and the moth doth not decay it. As Freinkel shows, that's the beauty, the horror, and perhaps the ultimate saving grace of the quintessential modern material.

Freinkel devotes a chapter apiece to each of several iconic plastic objects – things like Frisbies, IV bags, disposable cigarette lighters. The objects are banal, but each of them gives Freinkel a chance to tell another story of the invention, manufacture, and fate of a kind of plastic, or its manifold uses, or its cultural context. She doesn't retell the same stories that Jeffrey Meikle did in his outstanding book American Plastic (1995), and so much the better: Meikle's book is more of a cultural history (as its subtitle suggests) and more about the earlier foothold that plastic gained in the United States specifically. A lot has happened to plastic in the scant 16 years since Meikle wrote, and Freinkel's book is commendably up-to-the-minute on issues like recycling, environmental hazards, and the newest alternative plastics.

"Plastic" is really many materials, each of which is uncannily protean. Why, then, do I get the feeling that it has reduced the diversity of the material world? In the 1960s, as in the 2010s, I spent a lot of time eating cereal. I got to know which cereal boxes contained bags of cereal in wax paper of different grades, and which contained heavier bags of paper-backed foil. (The latter included Sugar Smacks and Sugar Crisp, which have since changed their names without reducing their sugar content.) Grape-Nuts, hilariously, didn't have a bag at all. They sat right in the cardboard box, presumably because they couldn't get any staler than when they started out.

Nowadays, all cereal boxes contain identical inner bags made of high-density polyethylene. A minor loss in diversity, perhaps a gain in freshness – but a change that leaves me with the suspicion that all the cereal tastes the same and is made of the same ingredients. Plastics are like that. They deaden the senses with their inertness. Their colors are aggressive and artificial. We don't like them, but we're clearly deeply committed to them – which is why a bad relationship is Freinkel's governing metaphor for humanity's (especially America's) involvement with plastic.

Could I live without plastic, as blogger Beth Terry tries to? Not for very long. Last Saturday was my stock-making day. I simmered a not-so-secret formula of vegetables and herbs in a big steel pot. So far, not much plastic involved, except for the uncompostable little stickers on the green peppers. I drained the stock, salted it . . . and then poured it into 20 two-pound yoghurt tubs, crafted from the finest polypropylene. I froze them overnight, popped out one-cup pucks of stock, and wrapped each stock puck individually in a polyethylene sandwich bag. Since I was also reading Plastic at the time, I began to see myself as a sinister camp follower of the world packaging industry. Can't I even do an old-timey from-scratch kitchen operation without using a ton of plastic?

Of course, I am mildly mitigating my plastic footprint by using and reusing the otherwise hard-to-recycle yoghurt tubs. They're not headed for any landfill, as long as I retain a taste for homemade stock, so I have personally delayed the afterlife of these one-use packages by maintaining a personal stock-freezing factory in my garage. (The polyethylene bags, I gotta admit, I toss after one use.) But what's a consumer to do? Plastic is a bafflingly readymade material, impossible to recycle at home in the way you can reshape wood or fabric. (Although much fabric is now plastic, too.) Freinkel gets at the essential weirdness of the stuff: "Plastics weren't something people could make or fix at home. How could you patch a cracked Tupperware bowl?" (120)

For most of human history and prehistory, as Freinkel points out, we used stuff that we could shape and reshape. Even if it was made at a workshop, we could take it apart and re-employ its materials, or at worst sell it to a peddler who could take it to someone who could. Ceramics are an exception, which is why they populate privies and middens and are the joy of archaeologists. But dust they are, and to dust they will return. Broken clay is on its way to becoming earth again.

Not so with plastics. Even when they distintegrate to near-invisibility, they are fundamentally not like the components of organic soil, and they pose problems for the ecosystem. Freinkel's final image, however, is a plastic bridge built over a stream in (don't laugh) New Jersey. It's an ingenious thought experiment that engineers have made very real. We have tons of plastic that will never degrade. We have tons of bridges that are degrading before our eyes. Why not use the indestructible stuff to patch our destructible infrastructure?

Freinkel, Susan. Plastic: A toxic love story. Boston: Houghton, 2011.