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Review: Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Frienkel

Look around you and attempt to count how many objects of plastic are nearby. If you’re on the computer, you’re probably touching some right now. Besides my laptop, I can see my cell phone, which is plastic, the plastic on the cushion I’m sitting on, the plastic on my pen, and there are even some synthetic fibers in the clothes I am wearing. And I’ve gone no further than an inch. When Susan Frienkel attempted to categorize the plastic in her life, she became overwhelmed, and set about writing a book on plastic. Focusing on eight key items that have shaped plastic’s history and our own, she examines the effect the plastic industry is having on our bodies, on the environment, and on the economy, going down to what we can do about it and even whether or not we should.

I’ll confess right here and say that I’m not a huge anti-plastic person. I do bring reusable bags to the grocery store and I recycle the plastic that’s accepted at my local dump, but I don’t really think about it much more than that. Reading this book suddenly made me realize how much of our lives seriously are based on plastic and how little of it is reused. People are far more likely to recycle glass or cardboard or paper, even though plastic is what’s cluttering up the earth, and every attempt at minimising waste or implementing “better” plastic is generally stymied because it costs money. This, while animals are dying and the sea is covered in little tiny bits of plastic, while some plastics are having unknown effects on our bodies, and while we continue to accept the dominance of it in our lives.

Frienkel doesn’t say plastic is all bad, far from that. She even talks to experts, and most of them say that they don’t put plastic in the microwave (whoops, I do this) and do recycle, but they’re not really worried about it in any other sense. Some are damaging, but more research will enable us to sort out the dangerous plastics from the safe ones. Some have already been banned and it’s a matter of paying greater attention as opposed to outright expulsion of plastics. She accepts that we have a reliance on plastic, so in addition to the historical parts on each plastic product, she is more pragmatic about going forward while continuing to keep plastic in our lives. It’s fairly obvious that she leans more towards the side of less plastic is more, but then ideally so do I, and she does treat both sides equally.

Naturally for me, the historical parts were the most interesting. Susan delves into eight items, among them the comb, the lighter, the plastic bag, the plastic chair (who hasn’t spent their childhood sat on a tiny plastic chair?), and IV tubing. With the comb, for example, she looks at how the comb was made before plastic, and how sustainable that practice was. Combs were expensive, generally made from tortoiseshell, ivory, or even wood – they’re something that’s found in virtually all layers of human history, and used to be a high status value item. Those of us who read historical novels probably know that already. Now, obviously, using a tortoiseshell or ivory to make a comb is considered atrocious, and wasn’t exactly sustainable then, so in this respect plastic, if treated properly, has actually improved things. Plastic combs are cheap, easy to use, and hardly ever get damaged, unlike the other types. It’s very, very interesting reading, and gave me a lot to think about that I’d never actually considered before.

Of course, Frienkel also stresses the need for more research, more recycling and investment, and more consideration of our choices. Implementing things like bottle charges are proven to work, yet have been shot down since 1986 because people don’t want to pay and don’t want to be obliged to return to the store to get their five cents per bottle. Thinking about the wider impact, though, makes it obvious that we should go that extra step. It’s not hard to round up all your bottles and cans and take them with you when you next grocery shop, and it’s those little steps, combined with larger measures of research and safety standards across plastic manufacturers, that will make the world a safer place for our children.

Plastic is a flat out fantastic book, well worth reading for everyone, because let’s face it: plastic is a huge part of our lives and it’s a part that’s going to stay. Isn’t it worth educating ourselves? This book is a great first step in that direction.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from netgalley.com.

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4 comments to Review: Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Frienkel

  • This book sounds fascinating, and you know, I have never really thought about how much plastic really surrounds me. I love non-fiction that is informative and interesting, and I really want to get the time to check out this book. Thanks for the great review! I am adding this one to my list!
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  • It’s so funny that you’re reviewing this today because Carl and I were talking just last night about the fact that jars for things like ketchup, mayonnaise, and peanut butter were glass when we were growing up. We both decided that we should go back to glass. Oh, and we are big recyclers and recycle lots of plastic. I do get frustrated when I come across a plastic item that isn’t marked with a recycling symbol.

  • Plastics make it possible!

    Sorry, couldn’t stop myself.

  • Er, you’re not supposed to microwave plastic?! Well… too late for that one! I think I am slightly more conscious of the presence of plastic in everything than some other people. Though granted, my main way of helping keep my own plastic use down is to have a nice reusable water bottle and to take my own reusable bags to the grocery store. But it’s actually the water bottles in developing countries, I think, that are insane. I remember in India, Egypt and China- they are EVERYWHERE.

    There is also just a lot of extraneous plastic packaging on everything, I feel, and I don’t know why. I would LOVE it if someone banned shrink wrap, for example…
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