I’ve just finished reading Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. The book is super well researched, and the author, with journalist training, finds the balance between story and substance that made me want to read every page.
Each chapter is organized around a discrete consumer object in conjunction with a particular part of the plastic life cycle – for example, bottles and recycling, design and the plastic chair, (although Harvey Molotch’s Where Stuff Comes from is a much stronger account of the design of mundane objects). The book offers some interesting and new to even plastic obsessed me ‘fun facts’ – that more plastic has been produced in the last decade than the entirety of the 20th century, that there is not a single plastic resin reprocessing facility on the west coast. At times Friedel follows the conceptual plan to a fault, as with what feels like an overly contrived link between credit cards and the emergence of bioplastics as new materials.
What I find most valuable and captivating, however, are the meticulous behind the scenes prose tours of a plastic resin plant in the US, a Frisbee factory in China, and San Francisco’s recycling sorting facilities (where the line is stopped twice daily so that escaped plastic bags can be extracted from the machinery with the help of bolt cutters). I think these kinds of efforts are incredibly helpful for imagining the longer trajectories of plastic things that seem designed out of consumption processes where consumer goods magically appear on shelves and disappear when thrown ‘away’.
While these accounts are backed by extensive research, I only discovered the ample endnotes after finishing the book. The decision not to include numbers or any other indication in the main text caters to popular reading practices and a smooth story, but unfortunately obscures many important sources. Similarly designed to sell, the story ends optimistically with human ingenuity (the literal building of bridges from recycled plastics), not the frightening plasticized world where synthetic chemicals have seeped into out bodies, and litter even the most uninhabited reaches of the earth. But in refusing to simply blame industry or the offending substance, Friedel’s account suggests the complexity of our entanglements with plastic, a substance we can no longer live without.