Eco-novice gets educated.
Interested in learning more about plastics?
Pick up a copy of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.
I checked out a copy from the library a few months ago and was planning to mostly browse the book (I mean, how much does anybody really want to read about plastics, for heaven's sake?). But I ended up reading almost all of the chapters in their entirety. Through the lens of iconic plastic products (the Bic lighter, the frisbee, blood bags, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, etc.), each chapter explores the history and issues surrounding a certain aspect of plastics. I found the chapters on plastics in humans, plastic in the oceans and the rise of disposable products, and plastics recycling especially interesting. A few favorite passages from the book:
Are Plastics Really Toxic?
Almost invariably, when an epidemiological study reports a risk associated with phthalates, the group [the American Chemistry Council] counters with a press release pointing out that the study shows a correlation only, not proof of a causal effect. Which is true – that’s precisely what epidemiological studies do. Still, the correlations highlighted by epidemiological studies have long been the gold standard for assessing risks to public health. The insistent focus on the flaws of each individual study ignores – and obscures—how each may be contributing to an increasingly disturbing body of evidence. . . It’s a strategy taken straight from the tobacco industry.Plastic in the Oceans
[M]ost worrisome of all is plastic pollution of the oceans…One expert estimated as much as 1.6 billion pounds of plastics ends up in the oceans each year…A key question researchers are now asking is whether that plastic – and the toxins it can carry – is getting into the food chain. Is our plastic trash winding up back on our dinner plates?The Rise of the Disposable Society
Initially, [disposable] products were a tough sell – at least to the generation that had come up through the Depression…The ethos of reuse was so deeply ingrained that in the mid-1950s when vending machines began dispensing coffee in plastic cups, people saved and reused them. They had to learn—and be taught – to throw away…We learned to throw away so well that today half of all plastics produced go into single-use applications.Life Before Curbside Trash Pickup
For much of the United States’ history, Americans produced relatively little trash. Packaging, now one of the largest portions of the waste stream, scarcely existed. Most food and goods were sold in bulk…Reuse was a daily habit. Women cooked food scraps into soup and fed leftovers to the pigs and chickens most households kept. Old clothes were mended, disassembled for rags, or made into new outfits. Broken objects were repaired, dismantled for their parts, or sold to itinerant peddlers, who in turn broke them down and sold the metals, glass, rags, leather, and other materials back to industry…Things that could not be used in any way were burned [for heat, cooking fuel]. ..These kinds of informal recycling systems began to fade in the early twentieth century…the products and materials entering American lives increasingly had just one final destination: the garbage can. Waste was no longer a source of potential value or opportunity; it was a problem.The Role of Plastics in (over-)Consumption
[T]he greening of Plasticville will require more than just technological fixes. It also requires us to address the careless, and sometimes ravenous, habits of consumption that were enabled by the arrival of plastic and plastic money…It means grappling with what historian Jeffrey Meikle called our ‘inflationary culture,’ one in which we invest ever more of our psychological well-being in acquiring things while also considering them of such low value ‘as to encourage their displacement, their disposal, their quick and total consumption.’
If you haven't got the time or inclination to read an entire book on the history of plastics, try watching the documentary Bag It. I watched it after reading Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, and found that it covered many of the same topics, although with less depth of course. For practical tips on how to eliminate and replace plastic products, stay tuned for the soon-to-be-released book Plastic Free by Beth Terry of My Plastic-Free Life.
I'll close with a quote about plastics (found in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story) from Joel Tickner, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts:
"I’d rather change the rules so people don’t have to worry about this [toxins in plastics] than spend all my time worrying about it.” Joel Tickner, assoc. professor of env. Health at U. of mass.In light of that sentiment, if you haven't already, please sign and share this petition asking Congress for desperately-needed toxic chemical reform. And maybe someday, we'll all be able to spend less time worrying about plastic.