For someone who confesses that she began her research knowing really nothing about plastics, Susan Freinkel has put together an insightful, unbiased, fascinating look at how plastic products have become so pervasive in our lives, and why their continuing explosive use has raised so many unanswered environmental, waste and health concerns.
The arc of the story is sort of a love affair gone sour, said Freinkel in a telephone interview in which she discussed her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, whose cover, in a muted fashion, ingeniously lists more than 210 everyday plastic products that touch our lives.
Indeed, her book points out that the average person in the U.S. today consumes more than 300 pounds of plastic annually, compared with just 30 pounds in 1960. One-third of all plastics is used for packaging, creating an incredible amount of potential waste.
We initially thought that plastic was the most beautiful thing in the world, Freinkel said. But then a couple of decades down the line, we started to see a downside because of health questions surrounding the chemicals in the plastic materials, the large amount of waste created and the reliance on finite resources.
Few other materials we rely on carry such a negative set of associations or stir such visceral disgust, partially due to its preternatural endurance, Freinkel writes in her book. Humans could disappear from the earth tomorrow, but many of the plastics we've made will last for centuries.
In her book, Freinkel explores the growth of plastics by focusing on eight well-known consumer products the comb, the one-piece outdoor chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle and the credit card.
She uses those stories to discuss the concerns about the effects of plastic products on the environment and marine life, as well as the potentially harmful health effects caused by some of the chemicals used to make plastic products.
Critically, she does it in an extraordinarily balanced, well-documented fashion, only occasionally interjecting her own thoughts on the many issues. She painstakingly points out both sides of the issue. Equally as important, she explains how these plastics products are made in a way that both the consumer and the industry can understand and appreciate.
And while debunking commonly used statistics about the number of deaths of marine animals and birds from marine debris, she paints a picture that describes in the starkest way the threat that plastic ocean debris poses to fish, birds, mammals and the entire world.
Plastics have become a web of materials that are rightly considered both the miracle and menace of modern life.
They enabled the world, she writes in her book, to reduce its dependence on other shrinking or costly natural resources, and also created a wave of consumerism that brought affordable goods that some people otherwise might not have been able to purchase.
The story of plastics is riddled with paradoxes, she writes. We enjoy plastics-based technologies that can save lives as never before but that also pose insidious threats to human health.
She said during the interview, It really is eye-opening when you say you are going to pay attention to all the plastic in your life. For example, she said she counted and wrote down 196 products containing plastics that she touched the first day she began researching her book. It truly is everywhere.
I became both more appreciative of plastic and more concerned about plastic, said Freinkel, adding that she spent more than three years and interviewed more than 100 people to write her book, which will be available April 18.
And although she is now one of a growing number of consumers who think the single-use plastic bag needs to become a thing of past, she said the industry has a legitimate point to make about the environmental upside of bags when comparing the carbon calculations involved in making plastic bags to those for paper bags.
However, she said, her research also made her aware of the volume of plastic waste and the degree to which it exists, the cost that has on the natural world and the dismal failure of the recycling system in the U.S.
I also became concerned about synthetic chemicals in everyday products, said Freinkel. There are big, open, unanswered questions about plasticizers such as phthalates used to soften vinyl products such as IV bags, and the chemical bisphenol A, which is used to make polycarbonate products such as baby bottles.
We really don't know the health impacts, but there are disturbing questions being raised by a number of studies, with the validity of those studies often questioned by industry, Freinkel notes in her book.
The insistent focus [by the American Chemistry Council] on the flaws of each individual study ignores and obscures how each may be contributing to an increasingly disturbing body of evidence, she writes.
It's unlikely science will deliver neat, definitive answers about the risk of endocrine disrupters anytime soon. Have we reached the point where there is enough evidence to fairly act on the side of caution? I think we have, she writes.
It's her view that the industry needs to be more proactive and try to develop chemical additives that have don't have hormonal or biological effects.
She also chastises the plastics industry, saying that, based on her conversations with people at ACC in Washington, she believes they are only interested in recycling when it is politically expedient.
Freinkel said she suggested to them that they would create more good will if, instead of spending millions of dollars on lobbying to defeat product bans, they put that money into improving recycling technology.
They said, 'That's not our job.'
But mostly, Freinkel said she hopes her book sparks conversation about a material that is ubiquitous, woven into our life and not going away.
We are not going to undo the past 50 years of concern and we are not going to divorce ourselves from plastics, she said. I don't think there is going to be less use of plastics in making products, because these are incredible materials.
Indeed, her book points out that in the first decade of the 21st century, almost as much plastic was produced as was made in the entire 20th century.
We need to have a change on the part of producers and consumers, she said in the interview. Companies need to embrace producer responsibility and design and make a product so it can be recycled, and then build a process to get it back.
Public policies are needed to discourage single-use products or to provide incentives for people to do the right thing, because the mentality of many people is not to recycle, she added.
It's not hard to see why [plastic] bags have become a favorite target of environmentalists, writes Freinkel.
They are virtually without substance evanescent puffs of polyethylene, transient and yet ubiquitous. They've come to represent the collective sins of the age of plastics.
In the interview, Freinkel said, We have to start being more mindful and make more conscious decisions about our use of disposable products, because disposable products just generate more waste. These are all individual choices people have to make, she said.
Convenience does come at a cost and we have to decide whether it is a cost worth paying.