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Plastic : A Toxic Love Story

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  • Copyright: 2011-04-18
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

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Plastic built the modern world. Where would we be without bike helmets, baggies, toothbrushes, and pacemakers? But a century into our love affair with plastic, we¿re starting to realize it¿s not such a healthy relationship. Plastics draw on dwindling fossil fuels, leach harmful chemicals, litter landscapes, and destroy marine life. As journalist Susan Freinkel points out in this engaging and eye-opening book, we¿re nearing a crisis point. We¿ve produced as much plastic in the past decade as we did in the entire twentieth century. We¿re drowning in the stuff, and we need to start making some hard choices. Freinkel gives us the tools we need with a blend of lively anecdotes and analysis. She combs through scientific studies and economic data, reporting from China and across the United States to assess the real impact of plastic on our lives. She tells her story through eight familiar plastic objects: comb, chair, Frisbee, IV bag, disposable lighter, grocery bag, soda bottle, and credit card. Her conclusion: we cannot stay on our plastic-paved path. And we don¿t have to.Plasticpoints the way toward a new creative partnership with the material we love to hate but can¿t seem to live without.

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The New copy of this book will include any supplemental materials advertised. Please check the title of the book to determine if it should include any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.

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I n t r o d u c t i o n


In 1950, a Philadelphia toy company came out with a new accessory
for electric-train enthusiasts: snap-together kits of plastic
buildings for a place it called Plasticville, U.S.A. Sets of plastic
people to populate the town were optional.
 It started as a sleepy, rural place where trains might roll past redsided
barns to pull into a village with snug Cape Cod homes, a police
department, a fire station, a schoolhouse, and a quaint white
church with a steeple. But over the years, the product line spread
into a bustling burb of housing tracts filled with two-story Colonials
and split-level ranch houses and a Main Street that boasted a bank,
a combination hardware store/pharmacy, a modern supermarket, a
two-story hospital, and a town hall modeled on Philadelphia’s historic
Independence Hall. Eventually Plasticville even gained a drivein
motel, an airport, and its own TV station, WPLA.
 Today, of course, we all live in Plasticville. But it wasn’t clear to me
just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire
day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment
became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning
when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat
was plastic. I quickly revised my plan. I would spend the day writing
down everything I touched that was plastic.
 Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page in my Penway
Composition Book (which itself had to be cataloged as partly plastic,
given its synthetic binding, as did my well-sharpened no. 2 pencil,
which was coated with yellow paint that contained acrylic). Here’s
some of what I wrote down as I made my way through my earlymorning

Alarm clock, mattress, heating pad, eyeglasses, toilet seat, toothbrush,
toothpaste tube and cap, wallpaper, Corian counter, light
switch, tablecloth, Cuisinart, electric teakettle, refrigerator handle,
bag of frozen strawberries, scissors handle, yogurt container, lid
for can of honey, juice pitcher, milk bottle, seltzer bottle, lid of cinnamon
jar, bread bag, cellophane wrapping of box of tea, packaging
of tea bag, thermos, spatula handle, bottle of dish soap, bowl,
cutting board, baggies, computer, fleece sweatshirt, sports bra,
yoga pants, sneakers, tub containing cat food, cup inside tub to
scoop out the kibble, dog leash, Walkman, newspaper bag, stray
packet of mayo on sidewalk, garbage can.

“Wow!” said my daughter, her eyes widening as she scanned the rapidly
growing list.
 By the end of the day I had filled four pages in my notebook. My
rule was to record each item just once, even those I touched repeatedly,
like the fridge handle. Otherwise I could have filled the whole
notebook. As it was, the list included 196 entries, ranging from large
items, like the dashboard of my minivan — really, the entire interior
— to minutiae, like the oval stickers adorning the apples I cut up
for lunch. Packaging, not surprisingly, made up a big part of the list.
 I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled
life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural
fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said
my home harbors less plastic than the average American’s — mainly
for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself? The
next day I tracked everything I touched that wasn’t made of plastic.
By bedtime, I had recorded 102 items in my notebook, giving me a
plastic/nonplastic ratio of nearly two to one. Here’s a sample from the
first hour of the day:

Cotton sheets, wood floor, toilet paper, porcelain tap, strawberries,
mango, granite-tile countertop, stainless steel spoon, stainless steel
faucet, paper towel, cardboard egg carton, eggs, orange juice, aluminum
pie plate, wool rug, glass butter dish, butter, cast-iron griddle,
syrup bottle, wooden breadboard, bread, aluminum colander,
ceramic plates, glasses, glass doorknob, cotton socks, wooden
dining-room table, my dog’s metal choke collar, dirt, leaves, twigs,
sticks, grass (and if I weren’t using a plastic bag, what my dog deposited
amid those leaves, twigs, and grass).

Oddly, I found it harder and more boring to maintain the nonplastic
list. Because I’d pledged not to count items more than once, after
the first flood of entries, there wasn’t that much variety — at least
not when compared with the plastics catalog. Wood, wool, cotton,
glass, stone, metal, food. Distilled further: animal, vegetable, mineral.
Those basic categories pretty much encompassed the items on
the nonplastic list. The plastic list, by contrast, reflected a cornucopia
of materials, a dazzling variety of the synthetica that has come to constitute
such a huge, and yet strangely invisible, part of modern life.
 Pondering the lengthy list of plastic in my surroundings, I realized
I actually knew almost nothing about it. What is plastic, really?
Where does it come from? How did my life become so permeated by
synthetics without my even trying? Looking over the list I could see
plastic products that I appreciated for making my life easier and more
convenient (my wash-and-wear clothes, my appliances, that plastic
bag for my dog’s poop) and plastic things I knew I could just as easily
do without (Styrofoam cups, sandwich baggies, my nonstick pan).
 I’d never really looked hard at life in Plasticville. But news reports
about toxic toys and baby bottles seemed to suggest that the costs
might outweigh the benefits. I began to wonder if I’d unwittingly ex-
posed my own children to chemicals that could affect their development
and health. That hard-plastic water bottle I’d included in my
daughter’s lunch since kindergarten has been shown to leach a chemical
that mimics estrogen. Was that why she’d sprouted breast buds at
nine? Other questions quickly followed. What was happening to the
plastic things I diligently dropped into my recycling bin? Were they
actually being recycled? Or were my discards ending up far away in
the ocean in vast currents of plastic trash? Were there seals somewhere
choking on my plastic bottle tops? Should I quit using plastic
shopping bags? Would that soda bottle really outlive my children and
me? Did it matter? Should I care? What does it really mean to live in

The word plastic is itself cause for confusion. We use it in the singular,
and indiscriminately, to refer to any artificial material. But there
are tens of thousands of different plastics.* And rather than making
up a single family of materials, they’re more a collection of loosely
related clans.
 I got a glimpse of the nearly inexhaustible possibilities contained
in that one little word when I visited a place in New York called
Material ConneXion, a combination of a consultancy and a materials
larder for designers pondering what to make their products out
of. Its founder described it as a “petting zoo for new materials.” And
I did feel like I was in a tactile and visual wonderland as I browsed
some of the thousands of plastics on file. There was a thick acrylic
slab that looked like a pristine frozen waterfall; jewel-colored blobs
of gel that begged to be squeezed; a flesh-toned fabric that looked and
felt like an old person’s skin. (“Ugh, I’d never want to wear anything
like that,” one staffer commented.) There were swatches of fake fur,
green netting, gray shag rug, fake blades of grass, fabric that holds
the memory of how it’s folded, fabric that can absorb solar energy
and transmit it to the wearer. I looked at blocks that mimicked finely
* For a brief description of the more common plastics, see “Cast of Characters” at the end
of the book.
veined marble, smoky topaz, dull concrete, speckled granite, grained
wood. I touched surfaces that were matte, shiny, bumpy, sandpapery,
fuzzy, squishy, feathery, cool as metal, warm and yielding as flesh.
 But a plastic doesn’t have to be part of the exotic menagerie at
Material ConneXion to impress. Even a common plastic such as nylon
offers wow-inducing possibility. It can be silky when serving in
a parachute, stretchy when spun into pantyhose, bristly when fixed
at the end of your toothbrush, or bushy on a strip of Velcro. House
Beautiful swooned over such versatility in a 1947 article titled “Nylon
. . . the Gay Deceiver.”
 However much they differ, all plastics have one thing in common:
they are polymers, which is Greek for “many parts.” They are
substances made up of long chains of thousands of atomic units
called monomers (Greek for “one part”) linked into giant molecules.
Polymer molecules are absurdly huge compared to the tidy, compact
molecules of a substance like water, with its paltry one oxygen and
two hydrogen atoms. Polymer molecules can contain tens of thousands
of monomers — chain links so long that for years scientists
disputed whether they could actually be bonded into a single molecule.
You might as well claim, said one chemist, that “somewhere in
Africa an elephant was found who was 1,500 feet long and 300 feet
high.” But the molecules did exist, and their hugeness helps account
for plastic’s essential feature: its plasticity. Think of the ways a long
strand of beads can be manipulated — pulled or stretched, stacked
or coiled — compared to what can be done with just a single bead
or a few. The lengths and arrangement of the strands help to determine
a polymer’s properties: its strength, durability, clarity, flexibility,
elasticity. Chains crowded close together can make for a tough,
rigid plastic bottle, like the kind used to hold detergent. Chains more
widely spaced can yield a more flexible bottle ideal for squeezing out

It’s often said that we live in the age of plastics. But when, exactly,
did we slip into that epoch? Some say it began in the mid-nineteenth
century, when inventors started developing new, malleable semi-
synthetic compounds from plants to replace scarce natural materials
such as ivory. Others fix the date to 1907, when Belgian émigré
Leo Baekeland cooked up Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer,
made entirely of molecules that couldn’t be found in nature. With the
product’s invention, the Bakelite Corporation boasted, humans had
transcended the classic taxonomies of the natural world: the animal,
mineral, and vegetable kingdoms. Now we had “a fourth kingdom,
whose boundaries are unlimited.”
 You could also peg the dawn of the plastics age to 1941, when,
shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the director of the board
responsible for provisioning the American military advocated the
substitution, whenever possible, of plastics for aluminum, brass, and
other strategic metals. World War II pulled polymer chemistry out
of the lab and into real life. Many of the major plastics we know today
— polyethylene, nylon, acrylic, Styrofoam — got their first marching
orders during the war. And having ramped up production to meet
military needs, industry inevitably had to turn its synthetic swords
into plastic plowshares. As one early plastics executive recalled, by
the war’s end it was obvious that “virtually nothing was made from
plastic and anything could be.” That’s when plastics truly began infiltrating
every pore of daily life, quietly entering our homes, our cars,
our clothes, our playthings, our workplaces, even our bodies.
 In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged
traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper
and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture. Even Amish buggies
are now made partly out of the fiber-reinforced plastic known as fiberglass.
By 1979, production of plastics exceeded that of steel. In an
astonishingly brief period, plastic had become the skeleton, the connective
tissue, and the slippery skin of modern life.
 Indisputably, plastic does offer advantages over natural materials.
Yet that doesn’t fully account for its sudden ubiquity. Plasticville
became possible — and perhaps even inevitable — with the rise of the
petrochemical industry, the behemoth that came into being in the
1920s and ’30s when chemical companies innovating new polymers
began to align with the petroleum companies that controlled the essential
ingredients for building those polymers.
 Oil refineries run 24-7 and are continuously generating byproducts
that must be disposed of, such as ethylene gas. Find a use for that
gas, and your byproduct becomes a potential economic opportunity.
Ethylene gas, as British chemists discovered in the early 1930s, can
be made into the polymer polyethylene, which is now widely used
in packaging. Another byproduct, propylene, can be redeployed as a
feedstock for polypropylene, a plastic used in yogurt cups, microwavable
dishes, disposable diapers, and cars. Still another is the chemical
acrylonitrile, which can be made into acrylic fiber, making possible
that quintessential emblem of our synthetic age AstroTurf.
 Plastics are a small piece of the petroleum industry, representing
a minor fraction of the fossil fuels we consume. But the economic
imperatives of the petroleum industry have powered the rise
of Plasticville. As environmentalist Barry Commoner argued: “By
its own internal logic, each new petrochemical process generates a
powerful tendency to proliferate further products and displace preexisting
ones.” The continuous flow of oil fueled not just cars but an
entire culture based on the consumption of new products made of
plastics. This move into Plasticville wasn’t a considered decision, the
result of some great economic crisis or political debate. Neither did
it take into account social good or environmental impact or what we
were supposed to do with all our plastic things at the end of their
useful lives. Plastic promised abundance on the cheap, and when in
human history has that ever been a bad thing? No wonder we became
addicted to plastic, or, rather, to the convenience and comfort, safety
and security, fun and frivolity that plastic brought.
 The amount of plastic the world consumes annually has steadily
risen over the past seventy years, from almost nil in 1940 to closing in
on six hundred billion pounds today. We became plastic people really
just in the space of a single generation. In 1960, the average American
consumed about thirty pounds of plastic products. Today, we’re each
consuming more than three hundred pounds of plastics a year, generating more than three hundred billion dollars in sales. Considering
that lightning-quick ascension, one industry expert declared plastics
“one of the greatest business stories of the twentieth century.”

The rapid proliferation of plastics, the utter pervasiveness of it in our
lives, suggests a deep and enduring relationship. But our feelings toward
plastic are a complicated mix of dependence and distrust — akin
to what an addict feels toward his or her substance of choice. Initially,
we reveled in the seeming feats of alchemy by which scientists produced
one miraculous material after another out of little more than
carbon and water and air. It’s “wonderful how du Pont is improving
on nature,” one woman gushed after visiting the company’s Wonder
World of Chemistry exhibit at a 1936 Texas fair. A few years later,
people told pollsters they considered cellophane the third most beautiful
word in the English language, right behind mother and memory.
We were prepared, in our infatuation, to believe only the very best
of our partner in modernity. Plastics heralded a new era of material
freedom, liberation from nature’s stinginess. In the plastic age, raw
materials would not be in short supply or constrained by their innate
properties, such as the rigidity of wood or the reactivity of metal.
Synthetics could substitute for, or even precisely imitate, scarce and
precious materials. Plastic, admirers predicted, would deliver us into
a cleaner, brighter world in which all would enjoy a “universal state
of democratic luxury.”
 It’s hard to say when the polymer rapture began to fade, but it
was gone by 1967 when the film The Graduate came out. Somewhere
along the line — aided surely by a flood of products such as pink flamingos,
vinyl siding, Corfam shoes — plastic’s penchant for inexpensive
imitation came to be seen as cheap ersatz. So audiences knew exactly
why Benjamin Braddock was so repelled when a family friend
took him aside for some helpful career advice: “I just want to say one
word to you . . . Plastics!” The word no longer conjured an enticing
horizon of possibility but rather a bland, airless future, as phony as
Mrs. Robinson’s smile.
 Today, few other materials we rely on carry such a negative set of
associations or stir such visceral disgust. Norman Mailer called it “a
malign force loose in the universe . . . the social equivalent of cancer.”
We may have created plastic, but in some fundamental way it remains
essentially alien — ever seen as somehow unnatural (though it’s
really no less natural than concrete, paper, steel, or any other manufactured
material). One reason may have to do with its preternatural
endurance. Unlike traditional materials, plastic won’t dissolve or rust
or break down — at least, not in any useful time frame. Those long
polymer chains are built to last, which means that much of the plastic
we’ve produced is with us still — as litter, detritus on the ocean floor,
and layers of landfill. Humans could disappear from the earth tomorrow,
but many of the plastics we’ve made will last for centuries.

This book traces the arc of our relationship with plastics, from enraptured
embrace to deep disenchantment to the present-day mix of
apathy and confusion. It’s played out across the most transformative
century in humankind’s long project to shape the material world to
its own ends. The story’s canvas is huge but also astonishingly familiar,
because it is full of objects we use every day. I have chosen eight
to help me tell the story of plastic: the comb, the chair, the Frisbee,
the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle,
the credit card. Each offers an object lesson on what it means to live
in Plasticville, enmeshed in a web of materials that are rightly considered
both the miracle and the menace of modern life. Through
these objects I examine the history and culture of plastics and how
plastic things are made. I look at the politics of plastics and how synthetics
are affecting our health and the environment, and I explore
efforts to develop more sustainable ways of producing and disposing
of plastics. Each object opens a window onto one of Plasticville’s
many precincts. It is my hope that taken together, they shed light on
our relationship with plastic and suggest how, with effort, it might
become a healthier one.
 Why did I decide to focus on such small, common things? None
have the razzle-dazzle that cutting-edge polymer science is delivering,
such as smart plastics that can mend themselves and plastics
that conduct electricity. But those are not the plastic things that play
meaningful roles in our everyday lives. I also chose not to use any
durable goods, such as cars or appliances or electronics. No question
any of these could have offered insights into the age of plastics. But
the material story of a car or an iPhone encompasses far more than
just plastics. Simple objects, properly engaged, distill issues to their
essence. As historian Robert Friedel notes, it’s in the small things
“that our material world is made.”
 Simple objects sometimes tell tangled stories, and the story of plastics
is riddled with paradoxes. We enjoy an unprecedented level of
material abundance and yet it often feels impoverishing, like digging
through a box packed with Styrofoam peanuts and finding nothing
else there. We take natural substances created over millions of years,
fashion them into products designed for a few minutes’ use, and then
return them to the planet as litter that we’ve engineered to never go
away. We enjoy plastics-based technologies that can save lives as
never before but that also pose insidious threats to human health.
We bury in landfills the same kinds of energy-rich molecules that
we’ve scoured the far reaches of the earth to find and excavate. We
send plastic waste overseas to become the raw materials for finished
products that are sold back to us. We’re embroiled in pitched political
fights in which plastic’s sharpest critics and staunchest defenders
make the same case: these materials are too valuable to waste.
 These paradoxes contribute to our growing anguish over plastics.
Yet I was surprised to discover how many of the plastics-related issues
that dominate headlines today had surfaced in earlier decades.
Studies that show traces of plastics in human tissue go back to the
1950s. The first report of plastic trash in the ocean was made in the
1960s. Suffolk County, New York, enacted the first ban on plastic
packaging in 1988. In every case, the issues seized our attention for a
few months or even years and then slipped off the public radar.
 But the stakes are much higher now. We’ve produced nearly as
much plastic in the first decade of this millennium as we did in the
entire twentieth century. As Plasticville sprawls farther across the
landscape, we become more thoroughly entrenched in the way of
life it imposes. It is increasingly difficult to believe that this pace of
plasticization is sustainable, that the natural world can long endure
our ceaseless “improving on nature.” But can we start engaging in
the problems plastics pose? Is it possible to enter into a relationship
with these materials that is safer for us and more sustainable for our
offspring? Is there a future for Plasticville?

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