A Question Worth Asking, Again And Again

Photograph by Matthew Porter for The Atlantic

Surprising the question needs asking, but after reading HOW BAD ARE PLASTICS, REALLY? you will understand the rhetorical purpose. The author, Rebecca Altman, has written plenty on the topic, and here in the Atlantic her perspective is clear:

They’re harmful to health, environment, and human rights—and now poised to dominate this century as an unchecked cause of climate change.

This is hardly the time to talk about plastics is what I think when Dad, hovering over the waste bin at a post-funeral potluck, waves me over, his gesture discreet but emphatic. He has retrieved from the trash a crystalline plastic cup, with fluted, rigid sides. “Polystyrene,” he grins, inverting the cup to reveal its resin code (a 6 stamped inside the recycling symbol). “But not my kind.”

Dad, back in the 1960s, had manufactured a more resilient variety of polystyrene for Union Carbide, one of the 20th century’s major plastics manufacturers, since acquired by Dow Chemical Company. Now, in the parish hall, I recognize he is seconds from crushing the cup. As if on cue, he closes his grip. Being a certain type of polystyrene—and this is his point—the cup splinters into a strange bloom of shards arrayed about the cup’s circular bottom.

No butadiene, I think. “No butadiene,” he says, which, on the production lines he ran, had been added to rubberize the resin, one among 10,000 helpmates that make plastics as we know them possible. Dad shuffles off to find the recycling bin, though he knows the cup has little chance for recovery and likely a long afterlife ahead. This is especially true for polystyrenes, of which there are multiple varieties; plastics, as the anthropologist Tridibesh Dey notes, are a chemically complex lot, designed for performance rather than reclamation.

Dad once believed that plastics could be reused indefinitely. I imagine that, maybe, he thought plastics, like their makers, deserved the chance to begin again. When Union Carbide downsized in the 1970s, Dad took severance and stayed home with my siblings until he could figure out what a life beyond plastics might look like. The answer, it turned out, was public administration: For a time, he ran my hometown’s recycling program. Recycling, though, never lived up to Dad’s ideal. Of all the plastics made over his lifetime, less than 10 percent has been effectively repurposed.

This failure, like so many other aspects of our relationship with plastics, is often framed in terms of individual shortcomings; plastics’ producers, or the geopolitics that have made plastics so widespread, are rarely called out. But to read plastics’ history is to discover another story: Demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves. Society is awash in throwaway plastics not because of the logic of desire but because of the logic of history and of integrated industrial systems…

Read the whole article here.

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