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.

23 thoughts on “NPF: SINGLE USE”

  • Jeffrey Rivers says:

    Take a stroll through any good sized antique store and wonder at the old boxes and packages that have gratefully been preserved. The packaging and boxes that we couldn't wait to throw away fifty years ago are now lovingly preserved and sold at premium prices.

    It's a world before full-color high-speed printing presses, a world before high resolution anything. Three color printing on cardboard, and exquisite metal tins or hand-folded pasteboard boxes with real metal corners.

    One struggles to wonder if any of the plastic crap we produce now will ever be treasured the way an old cardboard litho box that once contained a tin toy robot ever will.

  • My sister bought me a nice pen once. It was from the MOMA in New York, and was made of aerospace aluminum. It weighed almost nothing, but was incredibly strong–no matter how hard I tried, I could never bend that thing even a tiny bit (some of you got that from the fact that it was made of aerospace aluminum). Anyway, I held on to that thing for almost 20 years before losing it god knows where last spring. Turns out, when you have nice things, you tend to not leave them sitting on a conference room table, or to let some schnook walk off without giving it back. So of the two options you gave, I'm going to go with Option B.

    As far as your larger point, most people have been trained to focus almost exclusively on short-term price at the long-term expense of quality. Any fellow nerds out there familiar with the "Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice"? The short version is that if you buy a cheap piece of crap that breaks every year, in the long run, you'll spend more than if you buy a high-quality item that you keep for 10 years. Scaled up, this is essentially Wal-Mart's business model . . . all made possible, as you point out, by cheap plastics.

    "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?"

  • Some plastics are recyclable. I have a nice Azek deck, which I confidently expect to last longer and require fare less care than the rotted wood deck it replaced.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    "There is nothing – anywhere, in any combination – that will replace the edifice built by fossil fuels."

    – investigative journalist Michael Ruppert

  • Drivebyposter says:

    "razors are a function of laziness"
    I agree. Go back to straight razors. I use one from the 60s and it still works quite well.

  • Ed W.,

    Of course, the poor can't gather enough resources at one time to afford the high-quality durable good. Kinda like how Rincewind would never have been able to afford a sapient pearwood Luggage if it hadn't chosen to follow him.

    Concerned Citizen,

    I agree entirely with the statement, but I think it's more about fuel than plastic. We managed to have a few corking good world wars without widespread use of plastic which would have been impossible without oil and gas.

    Anytime anyone mentions the word Luddite I have a strange compulsion to at least mention this Thomas Pynchon essay which weaves together the historical Luddite movement, Gothic literature, Science Fiction and computational processing. Oh and the best single statement which captures the psychology of resisting modernity: "Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however "irrational," to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing."

  • It may interest you to know that the hilarious short "A World Without Zinc" in Simpsons may have been inspired by a real short marketing film which preceeded an old movie. If you ever watch MST3K, you know that some of the older films from the 50's and early 60's often begin with various public service or advertising shorts. One of them is about springs. A man is replacing the springs in his sofa and gets fed up with the hassle. He wishes there were no springs, and wakes up later to find himself in just such a world. As he goes through his day discovering all the things he can't do without springs, a little animated spring with an annoying voice follows him. Every time he finds something inoperable due to the lack of springs, the little character shouts "NO SPRINGS!" When he wakes up, he is thankful that we live in a world full of springs, and during a golf game with his friends he talks their ears off about springs. And yes, he does mention "shooting a gun" as one of the many things springs allow us to do, IIRC.

    Try checking Youtube for "No Springs!"

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Jeffrey Rivers,
    In answer to your question – "One struggles to wonder if any of the plastic crap we produce now will ever be treasured the way an old cardboard litho box that once contained a tin toy robot ever will."

    We are a society that refuses to let go of our youth, and the market for totems from it are probably endless.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of "PEZ" collectables:

    And "HEEEEEEEEERE'S 'Barbie:'"

    Baseball cards aren't the only things boys collect:

    And I don't even want to google "'Star Trek'" or "'Star Wars,' antique figures," and discover the number of sites selling-off collectable plastic tchatchka's from those movies.

    I'd be willing to bet that if there's more than one person nostalgic for some plastic knick-knack from their youth, there's at least three people willing to sell it to them – for a tidy profit, whether it's in "Mint" condition, or not.

  • Major Kong says:

    My grandparents lived through the Great Depression.

    Like most people of that generation, they didn't throw anything out and they could fix pretty much anything.

  • One advantage of plastic bottles over glass is less weight. Plastic bottles today are lucky to hold their shape once the contents are emptied. Less weight equals less shipping costs.

    Some of the packaging is more durable than the cheap crap it contains.

  • Wander into archaeology and you'll find a lot of packaging. Baskets, bladders, ceramic pots, amphora, stone vials. Remember the ostrich egg canteens of the Kalahari? Even today if you travel off the beaten path far enough you're liable to get your fast food wrapped in a leaf and tied up with a bit of vegetable fiber. Or in a hollow bamboo tube. The guys in the bazaar can create a nifty container out of a sheet of newspaper to hold the pound of pistachios you just bought. You can even read it afterwards if you know the language.

  • mel in oregon says:

    you really think the water you drink from a plastic bottle is any different from tap water? it's almost surely filled with tap water as numerous people have pointed out. as far as recycling plastic so that the oceans don't all get ruined, very good idea. however, it only solves part of the problem, the massive thirst for oil is the most urgent. most americans drive a big suv if they can afford it, so we are the biggest offenders of destruction of the environment on the planet. course we can always blame china & india cause it makes us feel better. oh well, only in america.

  • Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
    Benjamin: Yes, sir.
    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
    Benjamin: Yes, I am.
    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
    Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

  • A world without plastics…

    What you really mean is a world without polymeric materials.

    Yeah, no thanks.

  • What kind of lunatic still uses a straight razor to shave? How close of a shave does a person really need?

  • Eliminating plastics from consumer products? Eh, sure, I'll trade the convenience for the ecological benefit.

    But eliminating plastics altogether? Thanks, but I rather like the role they play in the advancement of medicine. I'll buy a tin can or cardboard box of laundry detergent, but if I need a blood transfusion, that sterile plastic tubing looks mighty nice.

  • Would have been nice to put some kind of limitation on plastics in their incarnation as packaging and products for the "lazy". But considering their role in reducing costs, food spoilage, and especially medicine, I fail to see how we aren't immeasurably better off WITH plastics.

    My problem is that we're at a point where, ecologically and technologically, we can and should move on to making plastics from organic materials, where possible. My biggest fear associated with running out of oil is not the transit and energy, although that will be bad, but running out of plastics.

  • West of the Cascades says:

    I think Dava Sobel kicked the trend off with "Longitude," published in 1995 – "Cod" then came out in 1997 and "Salt" in 2002.

    At some point it will become economically viable to mine the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for all the plastic floating there — probably after the Final Atomic War that leads to Mad Max-style life on the planet. It's hard not to see that trilogy as a template for where we're headed.

  • We're not going to have a world without plastics. There are lots of ways to make plastics, even if oil becomes very very expensive, and the usefulness level is too high to do without.

    Modern diapers have only a tiny amount of plastic.

    There might be a marginal shift to more wood, paper, and metal packaging for some uses. But even 500 years from now, we'll still have plenty of plastic crap.

  • "Syringes being single-use makes sense."

    It also makes sense that they be made of plastic. It really makes the whole concept of single-use possible. Glass and plastic syringes are both recyclable but plastics reduce the cost and make it possible to get syringes to people who need them.

    The discussion should be around recycling. Single-use products are okay as long as there aren't residual effects of the packaging cluttering up the world.

    Granted some single use products don't make seem to make sense, like diapers but … I still remember my mother cleaning them out — and I'm sure that's why they're single use now.

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