Thoughts on “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story”

My reusable shopping bag collection

My reusable shopping bag collection

A pet peeve--bottled water

A pet peeve–bottled water

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, 2011

Watch what people buy in the grocery store, and you’ll see why Americans are fat, unhealthy, and broke. I am not your typical meeting-going, politically active “environmentalist.” I merely like getting value for my food dollar, which means cooking most things from scratch, and using basic ingredients with a minimum of packaging. It pays to remember that heavily packaged, processed, advertised, and brand name items remove nutrients, add chemicals, and raise the price.

I also have a collection of canvas and other reusable shopping bags in the trunk of my car. At the grocery store, I put wallet in one of the bags, load groceries in the bag, and dump it all out at the check-out counter, quickly grabbing the wallet before the cashier can scan it.

Thus was I reassured but horrified to read about the results of plastic proliferation in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (2011). Author Susan Freinkel uses eight common objects–the comb, the “monobloc” chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery “T-shirt” bag, the soda bottle, and the credit card—to provide a meaty and fact-filled but highly readable history of the plastics industry’s exponential growth, and the consequences thereof. Plastic production has grown 25-fold in the last half-century.

Freinkel notes that the plastics industry intentionally undermined natural products, such as paper grocery bags and re-fillable lighters. Coming out of the depression, people were in the habit of being resourceful, so they had to be taught to throw away. She also says half of all plastics produced go into single use applications. The average American throws out at least 300 pounds of packaging a year.

About half of plastics float, and much of it has ended up in the oceans, where huge “gyres,” or ocean whirlpools, trap plastic waste by the ton. Most concerning are the confetti-sized bits that are gobbled up by bottom feeders, with toxins leaching into body fat and moving up the food chain. The atoll Midway is home to the Laysan albatross that scoops up squid and clumps of floating fish roe and regurgitates it for young. Autopsies of these birds show huge deposits of plastic trash in their stomachs, and young may starve because their bellies are full of plastic. These birds are only one of 260 species of animals being harmed by plastic.

Environmentalists have taken to cleaning and tracking plastics from beaches, and uniformity of trash is striking: “Plastic bottles, cutlery, plates and cups; straws and stirrers, fast-food wrappers, and packaging. Smoking-related items are among the most common. Indeed, cigarette-butts—each made up of thousands of fibers of the semi-synthetic polymer cellulose acetate—top every list. Disposable lighters aren’t far behind.”

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story was well researched, written, and delivered in dispassionate tone. However, it downplays American consumerism, letting us off the hook for our excessive throw-away lifestyle. It panders to government complicity and doesn’t dare challenge the corporations whose shareholders profit by blighting the environment.

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