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Plastic: A Toxic Love Story [Kindle Edition]

Susan Freinkel
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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. Plastic points the way toward a new creative partnership with the material we love to hate but can’t seem to live without.



Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Susan Freinkel

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about plastic?

A: In San Francisco, where I live, there’s been a lot of talk about the problems of plastic for several years. I decided to try getting through one whole day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became clear ten seconds into the appointed morning when I walked into the bathroom and realized the toilet seat was plastic. So instead, I spent the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. By day’s end I was staggered to see how thoroughly synthetic materials permeated my life. Like most people, I completely overlooked the extent to which modern life depends on plastic.


Q: What did you learn about plastic that most surprised you?

A: I was shocked to realize how fast our world became plasticized. In 1940, few plastics existed and scarcely anything was made of plastic. Today, there are thousands of different types of plastic and the average person is never more than three feet from something plastic. Even after years of research, I keep discovering plastic in unexpected places. For instance, the tiny beads in face scrubs are often made of plastic. Or here’s one for the yuck files: It’s also an ingredient of chewing gum.

Q: Why is the book subtitled "A Toxic Love Story"?

A: In researching the history of plastic, I was struck by how our relationship with it resembled a love affair gone bad. People initially were infatuated with these new materials, eager to use them in every possible way. In the ‘40s, pollsters found that "cellophane" was considered one of the most beautiful words in the English language, after "mother" and "memory." By the 1970s, when I was a teenager, plastic had acquired a much worse reputation; it was the stuff of pink flamingos, shiny suits, tacky furniture. It was synonymous with shoddy and fake. Today we’re discovering truly serious problems because of our reliance on plastic—health hazards, wasting of resources, pollution. And yet every year, the amount of plastic produced and consumed goes up. We’re trapped in an unhealthy dependence, the hallmark of a toxic relationship.

Q: Does plastic really last forever?

A: The lifespan of a plastic depends on a lot of variables. Some plastics might last less than a year; others can persist for decades or possibly centuries—especially in the ocean. When I started the book in 2008, I took a pair of plastic grocery bags and tacked one onto the fence in my backyard and tied the other to the branch of a nearby tree. Three years later, the bag on the fence is still there looking scarcely the worse for wear. The bag in the tree is gone—but only because the tree died.

Q:Did working on the book change your feelings about plastic?

A: I became both more appreciative and more worried about plastic than I’d been before. I gained a better understanding of how plastic transformed fields like medicine, or transportation, or construction, making it possible to replace, say, a failing heart valve or build Boeing’s new super-lightweight Dreamliner plane. Early in my research I attended a convention on eco-friendly construction and discovered that "green" builders love Styrofoam because it’s a great insulator and is long-lasting. But many of the pluses plastic provides come with minuses. For instance, the qualities that make Styrofoam a friend of the environment in construction make it a disaster for the environment when it’s used to make disposable cups.

Q:With huge environmental issues like climate change or loss of biodiversity facing us, why should we care about plastic?

A: For one thing, we’ve produced more plastic in the last decade than the entire previous century. Yet a lot of it is going to trivial one-time uses, which is an incredible waste of a very valuable resource—and one that could be very useful in helping us address the problems posed by climate change. But I also think how we use plastic is symptom and symbol of significant issues, like our dependence on finite fossil fuels, or our daily exposure to hazardous chemicals. Something like the fight over the plastic shopping bag might seem trivial, yet when we grapple with the plastic shopping bag, we’re grappling with our whole throwaway culture—and the environmental problems that culture of convenience has created. Talking about plastics is really a conversation about just how deeply we want to transform the natural world, what kind of legacy we want to leave to the generations that succeed us.

Q:Have you changed the ways that you use plastic?

A: I am more conscientious about how I use plastic. I’ve really tried to reduce my dependence on single-use plastics, like bags, and to buy more in bulk when possible to reduce packaging waste. Because my family loves fizzy water, we bought a seltzer maker that comes with reusable bottles. The funny thing is how easy it is to overlook the place of plastic in your life—even when you’re writing a book on it! Two years into my research, I was making tea one day when I suddenly realized my electric teakettle was made of plastic. Given what I had learned about the ways heat can accelerate the breakdown of polymer bonds, which allows chemicals to leach out, I decided to swap it out for a metal teakettle.

Q: What are the five things people can do to improve their relationship with plastic?

A: Unlike many troubled marriages, this is one relationship that can be bettered without a lot of pain:</P

1. Refuse single-use freebies: Bring your own bag when shopping. Carry a travel mug for your daily caffeine fix. Tell your waiter you don’t need a straw.

2. Reuse where possible: Give that sandwich baggie a week’s workout; use that empty yogurt tub for leftovers.

3. Quit the bottled water habit. You can stay just as hydrated with a reusable bottle made of stainless steel, aluminum, or BPA-free plastic.

4. Learn what you can recycle. Find out what plastics your community recycler accepts. Explore other recycling resources: UPS stores will take back shipping peanuts; many grocery chains will take used bags and plastic film; many office supply chains will take back used printer cartridges.

5. Don’t cook in plastic. Heat can cause hazardous chemicals to leach out of some polymers, so transfer food to glass before microwaving.


From Publishers Weekly

"What is plastic, really? Where does it come from? How did my life become so permeated by synthetics without my even trying?" Surrounded by plastic and depressed by the political, environmental, and medical consequences of our dependence on it, Freinkel (The American Chestnut) chronicles our history with plastic, "from enraptured embrace to deep disenchantment," through eight household items including the comb, credit card, and soda bottle (celluloid, one of the first synthetics, transformed the comb from a luxury item to an affordable commodity and was once heralded for relieving the pressure on elephants and tortoises for their ivory and shells). She takes readers to factories in China, where women toil 60-hour weeks for a month to make Frisbees; to preemie wards, where the lifesaving vinyl tubes that deliver food and oxygen to premature babies may cause altered thyroid function, allergies, and liver problems later in life. Freinkel's smart, well-written analysis of this love-hate relationship is likely to make plastic lovers take pause, plastic haters reluctantly realize its value, and all of us understand the importance of individual action, political will, and technological innovation in weaning us off our addiction to synthetics. (Apr.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1542 KB
  • Print Length: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 28, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004TC0H12
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #427,483 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First rate history and compelling reading April 5, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Around 150 years ago, the elephants of the world were being hunted to extinction. The reason? The need for high-quality ivory needed to make billiard balls for that gentleman's game. The rising price of ivory threatened the entire industry, and in 1863 a billiard ball supplier offered a reward of $10,000 in gold (equivalent foot about $175,000 at today's prices) to anyone who could come up with a good substitute. A printer by the name of John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge, and started experimenting with nitrating various materials. What he came up with was nitrocellulose, a touch, flexible material that his creative brother named Celluloid. Celluloid proved a boon not only to billiard ball makers (and not incidentally, to elephants) but also to hawkbill tortoises. The were also threatened, their sturdy shells being the raw material for the sort of elegant combs that respectable women of the day wore in their hair- if they could afford them. Celluloid combs, mirrors, and other feminine accessories quickly flooded the market. Celluloid collars for men's shirts quickly displaced expensive linen ones. The era of synthetic materials had begun.

The second generation of synthetics came around 1907, with the accidental discovery of what was to become the first of the thermosetting plastics: Bakelite. Invented as a synthetic replacement for shellac in electrical insulation, Bakelite's toughness and ease of molding quickly found a home in telephone sets, radio cabinets, pipe stems, kitchenware and more. It could easily be tinted with the new synthetic dyes, producing the brilliant plastic Catalin radio sets of the 1930s.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Easy Five Stars March 18, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Called the North Pacific Gyre or a plastic vortex it stretches an expanse of ocean at least the size of Texas, maybe twice that size. Scientists think it contains 3 million pounds or more of plastic - water bottles, disposable lighters, bags, bottle caps, toys, innumerable sundry items - and small pieces of plastic created by the ocean's motion and the rays of the sun, so many slivers of plastic that the ocean in that area glistens, such an incredible number of plastic particles that they outnumber plankton (in some areas 40 to 1) and are ingested by sea birds, turtles, and fish- killing some or becoming part of the "food" chain as larger fish ingest smaller fish.

This is not Al Gorish paranoia. The gyre is real, observable, and measurable. The presence of the gyre (there are actually two of them) can't be denied even by the manufacturers of plastic. When asked about the gyre, one spokesperson for the plastic industry said that consumers have to do a better job recycling. We'd better, because except for a small percentage of bioplastics, plastic is "forever" with life expectancies of 500 to a thousand years.

Google "plastic vortex". Note the multiple pages of hits. Watch the Youtube videos, especially one by San Diego department of oceanography. Pay attention to the photos of dead birds, fish, and turtles, their stomachs slit open to expose horrific amounts of plastic.

How does one even begin to tackle the story of plastic, and its journey from chemical strands to tiny chunks, to manufactured products, to the ocean, and ultimately back to billions of bits of plastic confetti? Freinkel chose eight common objects to tell her plastic tale: the comb, the chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle, the credit card.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a plastic distributor, I like to read books about the history of plastics. As a Colorado resident, and husband to a professional conservationist, I enjoy learning more about environmental issues. I got a chance to do both when I when I recently read the new book, Plastic; A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel.

The author decided to spend a day without touching anything plastic. But she didn't make it too far. About 10 seconds, she estimates...since both the light switch and the toilet seat in the bathroom were made of plastic. So she changed the experiment into a list-making exercise and that day she wrote down 196 different plastic items that she touched. Of course, many of these items were non-durable items like plastic packaging. The next day she continued list-making with a similar tally of everything she touched that wasn't at least partially made of plastic. The non-plastic list only made it to 102 items.

This led to some reflection and a list of questions, which she attempts to answer in the book. Those questions include:

What is plastic?
Where does plastic come from?
How did we get so many plastic items in our lives without really trying?
What happens to plastics after we put them into a recycling bin?
Does plastic actually get recycled after it's picked up curbside?
How much of the plastic that the typical American discards is ending up in the ocean?
Should we stop using plastic shopping bags?
Is there a future for plastic in a sustainable world?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Its nice to read well balanced non-fiction for once
I've become a bit wary of books that look like this - after several environmentally focussed books that have left me negative about the future I don't really want any more. Read more
Published 2 months ago by T. Edmund
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative
Interesting and informative. At times I feel that she went perhaps too in-depth on certains topics, but overall this book sheds light on the diversity and ubiquity of plastics. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Troy S
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Important Book
Very informative but what can you do. it is a question of social policy: finding a substitute and then using social policy to get widely disseminate it.
Published 2 months ago by Sedulous
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome
Makes you somehow care about things like the history of the plastic chair...fascinating, enlightening, and important for anyone who cares about environmental issues and our impact... Read more
Published 6 months ago by cccbooks1234
4.0 out of 5 stars Book was fine, SLOW delivery
Book was in great condition just as described. Delivery was VERY SLOW as it was not delivered in time to be useful for my daughter's class. Read more
Published 8 months ago by mary
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent & instructive book
Excellent book; talks about real things young on, and how we use to miss them; It tell us about issues that matter to all of us...
Published 9 months ago by Gonzalo
5.0 out of 5 stars Over a year later, still recommending this book. Had new information...
I read this book over a year ago and found that I am constantly referring to it in conversations, especially about recycling. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Elysia J.
5.0 out of 5 stars Like Diamonds Plastic is forever
Great book. I enjoyed this book and the wealth of information it offers. Highly recommend reading this book. All you need to know about Plastic
Published 16 months ago by Victoria Charles
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!
I was sucked in to this book from page 1. I'm a huge fan of Bill Bryson, and this author reminded me in ways of him: taking a seemingly simple topic and revealing its true... Read more
Published 18 months ago by J B
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read
Loved reading this book! Very informative, loved how the facts about plastic that I did not know about. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Jaime
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More About the Author

Susan Freinkel writes about the intersection of science, culture and the environment. Raised in Evanston, IL, she studied history at Wesleyan University, and journalism at Columbia University. After working several years as a daily reporter for the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, she moved to San Francisco to cover legal affairs and the business of law for The Recorder newspaper and American Lawyer magazine. She got interested in science when she started writing about health and medicine as a staff writer for Health magazine. Now a free-lancer, her work has appeared in national publications including the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian and Reader's Digest. Her interests run wide: she's covered stories ranging from mad cow disease to a vitamin treatment for bipolar disorder, from adoption to the case for zoos to the quest to develop a blue rose. A story about a disease plaguing California oak trees led to her first book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. It won a 2008 National Outdoor Book Award. After immersing herself in the natural world for that book, she turned her attention to the unnatural world for her next book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

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