In the past decade the publishing industry has seen a minor boom in what I like to call "Noun Books", non-fiction books written about a single object or item that appears to be simple and uninteresting but, the author reassures you, actually has a fascinating back story. Mark Kurlansky appears to have kicked off this trend with the surprise best-seller Salt (followed by Cod), which inspired a host of imitators from Spice to Banana to White Bread to Dirt. One of the few truly excellent ones, in my view, is Susan Freinkel's Plastic: a Toxic Love Affair. The overly trashy title misrepresents what is actually a detailed and interesting look at possibly the most transforming discovery of the 20th Century.
Plastic is so important to understanding our society because it essentially created, or at the very least made feasible for the first time, the modern culture of the disposable. Without it, the vast majority of the common single-use products – and there are a shocking number when you really think about it – would not be economically viable. As this recent discussion (responding to a recent lecture by Freinkel) emphasizes, we rarely pause to consider what such products used to be made from. Two of the most common disposables (pens and cigarette lighters) became disposable simply because we lose them so frequently – or do we lose them more frequently because they're disposable and we don't care? Syringes being single-use makes sense. Diapers, plastic kitchenware, and razors are a function of laziness, if you're a cynic, or the desire to make life easier and more pleasant if you're trying to be positive. But the biggest disposable isn't a product per se but the entire universe of packaging. Plastic bottles dominate the beverage industry, plastic packing materials are integral to shipping,and everything comes swaddled in plastic, plastic, and more plastic.
I'm having a hard time envisioning what a lot of products would end up looking like without plastic packaging. The most obvious answer would be a lot more tiny cardboard boxes. After all, no one's buying a toothbrush with a head that is exposed to all and sundry. Products in plastic dispensers – deodorant or cooking oil, for example – would end up in metal canisters (or glass bottles! Like Prell!) Of course these alternatives are more costly but more durable and potentially easier to recycle/reuse, so once again we're trading convenience for a continent-sized mound of plastic that biodegrades at rates best measured in decades?
Zinc! Zinc! Come back, Zinc!
At the risk of channeling the famous Simpsons instructional film "A World without Zinc", it's difficult to imagine a world without plastic. Despite the ample evidence to the contrary, a part of me believes that it might be a better one in a strange, Luddite way.