Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Plastic Fantastic Love Affair

"Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance."

Her neon mouth with a bleeding talk smile
 Is nothing but electric sign
 You could say she has an individual style
 She’s a part of a colorful time

 Super-sealed lady, chrome-color clothes
 You wear ’cause you have no other
 But I suppose no one knows
 You’re my plastic fantastic lover

 Your rattlin’ cough never shuts off
 Is nothing but a used machine
 Your aluminum finish, slightly diminished
 Is the best I’ve ever seen

 Cosmetic baby, plug into me
 And never, ever find another
 And I realize no one’s wise
 To my plastic fantastic lover

 The electrical dust is starting to rust
 Her trapezoid thermometer taste
 All the red tape is mechanical rape
 Of the TV program waste

 Data control and I.B.M.
 Science is mankind’s brother
 But all I see is draining me
 On my plastic fantastic lover
— “Plastic Fantastic Lover” written by Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane

I am addicted to plastic. How can I freak out about the sea mammals drowning in plastic nets and six-pack packaging, or the seagulls eating lighters and condoms off the beach, when I give no second thought to picking up a plastic comb in an airport shop, even if I decline the plastic bag? 
For most of history, combs were made of almost any material humans had at hand, including bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, papier-mâché. But in the late nineteenth century, that panoply of possibilities began to fall away with the arrival of a totally new kind of material — celluloid, the first man-made plastic. Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid. And having crossed that material Rubicon, comb makers never went back. Ever since, combs generally have been made of one kind of plastic or another.

The word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” The flexibility derives from long, bouncey chains of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms arrayed in repeating patterns that behave like a snake’s skin. 

Snakeskin is a good example, because biology has been knitting these molecular daisy chains for hundreds of millions of years. The cellulose that makes up the cell walls in reptiles is a polymer. So are the DNA proteins that code the polymeric stems and flowers of daisies, and our muscles, skin and bones, and the long spiraling ladders that entwine the genetic destinies of daisies and bones, DNA. Take some of these protein chains, rearrange them slightly, and you get a dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, their choreography dictating specific productions of polymers. 
“Bring chlorine into that molecular conga line, and you can get polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as vinyl; tag on fluorine, and you can wind up with that slick nonstick material Teflon.” — Susan Freinkel, author of PLASTIC: A Toxic Love Story
Take just a moment and lets walk back a step. The dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen were no more than air and water, rearranged. But now we throw in chlorine and fluorine and what happens? Permanence. That substance has withdrawn from the contract with nature whereby all things must return full cycle, each with its own sunset clause. 

The first artificial plastics — celluloid combs developed in 1869 by a young inventor in upstate New York — arrived at a moment of cultural transition. The turn of the 20th Century marked the birth of the consumer culture, the global switch from growing and preparing your own food and making your own clothing (unless you were aristocracy) to consuming mass market simulacra from factories. As historian Jeffrey Meikle pointed out in American Plastic:
 “By replacing materials that were hard to find or expensive to process, celluloid democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class.” 

Or as Susan Freinkle put it, plastics “offered a means for Americans to buy their way into new stations in life.”

They also offered a way for air and water to shirk their stations in life.

Unintended Consequences

Cellulose was a gateway drug. In 1907, Leo Baekeland combined cancerous formaldehyde with phenol derived from foul-smelling and nasty coal tar, and voila! His Bakelite was a tough, slick polymer that could be precisely molded and machined into nearly anything.
Families gathered around Bakelite radios (to listen to programs sponsored by the Bakelite Corporation), drove Bakelite-accessorized cars, kept in touch with Bakelite phones, washed clothes in machines with Bakelite blades, pressed out wrinkles with Bakelite-encased irons — and, of course, styled their hair with Bakelite combs. “From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes,” Time magazine enthused in 1924 in an issue that sported Baekeland on the cover. — Susan Feinkel
Bakelite inspired companies like DuPont, Dow and Eastman to get into the race. Discoveries followed and mass production of plastic products commenced. But Bakelite introduced something new to nature that was largely unappreciated at the time. Once those molecules were linked into a daisy chain, they couldn’t be unlinked. Microbes don’t care to spend the energy required to break those tough bonds if they can find food elsewhere more easily. 

You can break a piece of Bakelite, but you can’t make it into something else. It does not degrade. It never goes away. This is why you’ll still find vintage Bakelite phones, frames, radios and combs that look nearly brand-new, and why today plastic debris is piling up on land and in the open ocean, in the entrails of dead whales on shorelines and in living crustaceans on the deepest seabed of the Marianas Trench. 

In nature nothing is permanent. Everything is food for someone else. Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance —a harmony and rhythm that defines life. There is birth and there is death. But we could not accept that.

In the last half-century, there have been many drastic changes to the surface of our planet, but one of the most astonishing is the ubiquity and abundance of plastic. Even if we go extinct, that plastic will persist. We have only slowly moved from thinking of this as an aesthetic problem — litter and flotsam — to grokking that the choking and entanglement of wildlife threatens us. Dead reefs and red tides are sending warnings: destroy the marine food chain and you’ll choke your own. 

I find this addiction particularly difficult to break. And yet, break it we all must. There are ways. I will explore these in future installments, so please come back.

This is the first installment in what I expect to be a long, albeit perhaps intermittent, string of essays, with the goal of eventually producing a book. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. Reader donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can.

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