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Filmed on Tuesday May 22, 02012

Susan Freinkel

Eternal Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.

Plastic now pervades civilization---how many of the things you see from where you are right now are plastic? It is an ingenious material whose miraculous qualities we take too much for granted, but it also sometimes has nightmarish downstream effects. The giant polymer molecules (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, etc.) that are so marvelously cheap to mold, extrude, shape, and weave are also extremely durable. Their cheapness makes them the basic material of a throw-away culture (one third of all plastic goes into disposable packaging.) Their durability means that any toxic effects persist indefinitely in the environment.

Plastic presents a problem in temporal management of the very long-term and the very short-term. How do we get the benefits of plastic's amazing durability while reducing the harm from its convenient disposability? The matter requires close and respectful coordination between short-term experts (businesses) and long-term experts (governments and nonprofits). Managing plastic well is a microcosm of managing civilization well.

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.

Making plastic even better

Plastic is so new, Freinkel began, that among all the objects preserved in the sunken Titanic, none are synthetic plastic, because there was hardly any available in 1912. Natural plastic, however, was a familiar material. Amber was popular. Rubber was essential (all plant cellulose is made of long-chain polymers). Ivory for everything from billiard balls to piano keys was in such high demand that an 1867 paper warned about the looming extinction of elephants. The first synthetic plastic---celluoid---was developed as a substitute for ivory, and the elephants survived.

Bakelite was invented in 1907 to replace the beetle excretion called shellac ("It took 16,000 beetles six months to make a pound of shellac."), and was first used to insulate electrical wiring. Soon there were sturdy Bakelite radios, telephones, ashtrays, and a thousand other things. The technology democratized consumption, because mass production made former luxury items cheap and attractive. The 1920s and ‘30s were a golden age of plastic innovation, with companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, and I. G. Farben creating hundreds of new varieties of plastic for thrilled consumers. Cellophane became a cult. Nylons became a cult. A plastics trade show in 1946 had 87,000 members of the public lining up to view the wonders. New fabrics came along---Orlon and Dacron---as colorful as the deluge of plastic toys---Barbie, the Frisbee, Hula hoops, and Silly Putty.

Looking for new markets, the marketers discovered disposability---disposable cups for drink vending machines, disposable diapers ("Said to be responsible for the baby boom"), Bic lighters, soda bottles, medical syringes, and the infinite market of packaging. Americans consume 300 pounds of plastic a year. The variety of plastics we use are a problem for recycling, because they have to be sorted by hand. They all biodegrade eventually, but at varying rates. New bio-based polymers like "corn plastic" and "plant bottles" have less of a carbon footprint, but they biodegrade poorly. Meanwhile, thanks to the efficiencies of fracking, the price of natural gas feedstock is plummeting, and so is the price of plastic manufacture.

Some plastics have some chemicals like bisphenol A and phthalates that are toxic. American manufacturers don’t have to list the materials in their products, and there’s no hope of testing every one of the 80,000 industrialized chemicals loose in the world. Freinkel recommends greatly expanding the practice of “green chemistry,” so that every process and product of manufacturing is safe and sustainable from the ground up. She would like to see a stronger regulatory environment and the building of a fully systemic recycling infrastructure.

In the Q & A Freinkel recommended a book by Elizabeth Grossman, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry.

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