Thursday, June 2, 2011


Book Review : Plastic
Author : Susan Freinkel
My Rating : 5 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "Plastic : A Toxic Love Story".

Susan Freinkel's "Plastic" is a very current, up-to-date book that has to be on your "must read" list.

Plastics when used in daily conversations, is a nebulous term. Technically, it's a polymer (mostly man-made) with long molecular chains, which give it all the properties that we associate with plastics. Paradoxically, the very same properties that make plastics so desirable - lightweight, durable, inert, strong and cheap - also make it such a nuisance. As a result we cannot live without them, but we wish we could.

Susan Freinkel explains both aspects of this love-hate relationship. It was indeed revolutionary that we figured out a way of using the by-products of petroleum processing. It wasn't just about efficiency. These by-products generate a wide variety of plastics that make all sorts of items - from everyday utilities such as comb and toothbrush, to ultra-thin ultra-flexible tubes required in medical equipments. This platics revolution was crucial to improving our standard of living. Its substitution in place of wood and animal parts has helped us stop the plundering of Mother Earth. Think abut it. Today we see pictures of sea birds dying because of plastic trash. But its use has also saved many species by removing our need to kill them.

Freinkel explores the world of plastics, and it's effect on world in general by using a very novel approach. She devotes a chapter to objects such as chair, comb, Frisbee, credit card, bottle etc. I really liked this idea. It was a great pleasure to read the history of plastic chair and comb and Frisbee. These chapters are a great cocktail of information and story telling. The later chapters have less emphasis on story, but more on opinions and research. As a result there is some danger of information overload towards the end. Overall it's very well researched, well presented and well argued.

Consider the case of the plastic bag. It's hard to find an item as reviled and still as widely used. Well maybe the plastic bottle can compete for that dubious honor ! Are these items so deserving of scorn and activist attention ? The book's discussion of these topics was an eye-opener. I had always suspected that, replacing plastic bags with paper bags, is not really a wise solution. My suspicions were confirmed. But there is way more to it than what I had naively suspected. I urge you to read those chapters.

I had also wondered what happens to the items I throw in the recycle bin. I got answers. I think I agree with what I have learned. Recycling is needed, but the need to recycle is also a problem ! Reuse is the solution. Not always possible, but we should do it whenever possible.

As the author correctly points out, plastic is not a villain, and making it compostable won't make it a hero either. It's the culture of irresponsible consumerism based on single use, that's the root cause of the problem. For example, replacing plastic bottles with glass bottles will only increase the fuel required in transportation. Plastic has genuinely great benefits all over the spectrum of its applications. But if we keep throwing it away, we will become a civilization that choked on its own trash.

She points out that, it takes nature thousands of years to create the fossil fuel that's used to make plastics. It takes us few seconds to use it and trash it. Trash that will kill many species and outlive us by many generations. Very ironic and very sad.

Changing consumer behaviour is a tricky multi-dimensional problem. In here, there is a superb survey of many such attempts underway today.

That's not the only focus of the book, nor is its intention to be an activist mouthpiece. It's a social commentary too. I was chuckling when she pointed out how we all disapprove plastic chairs as being cheap, but we still use them. There are many such observations about the curious nature of our relationship with plastics.

I think this book has a wide appeal and it's very relevant today. Read it.

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