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Hearsay ... the electronic journal of the Bar Association of Queensland

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Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland

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Book Review: Plastic – A Toxic Love Story
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book_plastic.jpgAuthor: Susan Freinkel1

Publisher: Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia2

Reviewed by Mabel Tsui

“I have chosen eight (objects)…: the comb, the chair, the Frisbee, the IV bag, the disposable lighter, the grocery bag, the soda bottle, the credit card.”3

What do these eight humble objects have in common? They are all made of plastic – the topic of Susan Freinkel’s fascinating bookumentary “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.”  From the title, I had (cynically) expected a science-like text book talking about atoms and chemistry and was pleasantly surprised by Freinkel’s charming approach.  

The author starts with a personal touch – her list of things she touched in one day which were plastic and came up with an impressive collection.  Plastic then takes us on a journey about this substance from many perspectives – historical, manufacturing, artistic and geographical.   

The depth and detail of her research is obvious as she traces how our love story with plastics started: both generally and also from the perspective of each of the selected plastic objects.

Freinkel’s interest and effort is also obvious as she traverses from American state to state and to China and Hong Kong, observing the industrial aspect of plastic, how it is made and transformed into everyday objects that we take for granted.  In each chapter, she starts with a low-key description of the object and its impact on our life, weaving in historical stories or facts which lay the foundation for her discussion from the modern day context.  By the end of the chapter, the humble object is a Big Deal.

Freinkel also includes in each chapter personal stories of those involved in the trade of plastic and affected by it, almost humanising plastic and making it more than just material we use to comb our hair or carry water.

Two of the many stories Freinkel narrates are based on two totally unrelated objects, except for their mutual plastic characteristic. The first is the story of Baby Amy, whose mother was a drug addict and whose twin was still-born. The story is told in the context of the plastic incubators, IV bags and tubes which keep premature babies like her alive under the rubric: “Humans Are Just a Little Plastic Now.”  

The second tale concerns the manufacture of Frisbees in Hong Kong, China which are then exported to the US.  When asked about the mysterious appeal of Frisbees by a Chinese migrant worker, Freinkel tells the worker that they are used at the beach, and then asks if the worker has ever played with one, only to be told that the worker has never been to a beach.  

Given the ongoing debates over the environment and green policies, no book on plastics can escape a discussion of the impact of plastic use on the environment. Plastic is no exception.  There is a chapter appropriately titled “Closing the Loop” which focuses on recycling.

However, I found the “Battle of the Bag” a more fascinating read.  The topic concerns, of course, the increasing practice by supermarket chains worldwide of charging for the use of or banning plastic bags overall.  The difficulties of balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of the consumer and the resulting conflict is summarised very nicely in the section called “What Happened in San Francisco When Plastic Bags Were Banned”. Freinkel writes: “ … the inevitable result … was that grocers would revert to distributing ones made from paper.  Consumption of paper bags shot up more than fourfold to eighty-five million annually…this wasn’t doing Mother Nature any favours.”4

The chapter ends on a somewhat optimistic reminder that, as consumers and responsible individuals, we can do our bit. Freinkel illustrates the point by recalling a conversation she had with a young female shopper who owned five reusable shopping bags who explained that she just wanted to be environmentally friendly.

The structure of the book overall makes it an enjoyable and easy read and Freinkel’s descriptive approach appeals to the senses.  

For someone who has not an artistic bone in her body, I was fascinated by the progress of the architectural design of the humble chair and how furniture designers were inspired not only by imagination and creativity but also by the flexibility, the simplicity and the difficulty of plastic.  Their respect for this material is expressed by Charles Eames (who, along with wife Ray, reportedly inspired the character Eames from the movie Inception).  Eames “viewed plastic in much the same way the Aztecs viewed hard liquor – a means of self-expression too dangerously intoxicating for the young.”

After reading this book, I found myself extremely conscious of the objects I used which were (and were not made of plastic) and the possible health and environmental consequences of my actions.  In this day and age where businesses have to balance profit with corporate responsibility and green credentials and consumers become more environmentally aware, one can only applaud Freinkel and her journalistic ability.  Plastic serves as a timely reminder about plastic as a double-edged sword, how it impacts us and in turn, our impact on nature.  Like a Barbie girl in her Barbie world, we live in Plasticville surrounded by the material “we love to hate but can’t seem to live without”.  

Footnotes

  1. The author’s web site devoted to the book may be found here.
  2. Text is an independent publisher. Interestingly, on their list at the moment is a very amusing adult/children’s book called Go the F**k to Sleep which captures a certain nightmarish experience of every parent of young children. Their web site is here.
  3. Pg 9
  4. Emphasis added.


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