Being Plastic

Rebecca Gasior Altman is a writer and sociologist. Her work explores the social history of chemistry, plastics, pollution and environmental legacy— what we pass from one generation to the next. She holds a PhD in environmental sociology from Brown University, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a national think-tank.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Rebecca Gasior Altman: I am a sociologist—trained in the sociology of health and the environment, which I studied at Brown from 2002 to 2008. In practical terms, that means I am interested in public health, pollution, and more recently, plastic. I’m certain my Dad having made polystyrene was a part of why I chose this field, though plastics were not my explicit focus—at least not at first, and not intentionally. It wasn’t until 2013 that I began exploring plastics’ history. That year, my Dad’s old factory – what had been the flagship for Bakelite production in it is day – was being torn down. He invited me to see the plant before it was gone. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. Out of that experience came the essay American Petro-topia, published by Aeon Magazine in 2015. Writing it changed me, changed my career path.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your writing practice?

RGA: The single most significant influence was the near dream-like week I spent at an environmental writing workshop with the poet-biologist, Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, and most recently, the curator of Rachel Carson’s work on toxics for the Library of Congress.

Steingraber had left academia to write about the science of environmental health for the public. It was the first inkling that such a path was possible, maybe even vital. I soaked up everything she had to offer about craft and pacing and tone and emotion. I remember her saying how Carson deployed iambic pentameter when she wanted to make a particular point all the more piercing. Being otherwise untrained, Sandra encouraged me to keep writing by ear and to be influenced by the rhythms and musicality of my early years.

What Steingraber helped me understand about sound, John McPhee helped me understand about shape. How grateful I’ve been for his writing about writing in The New Yorker. One essay in particular, called Structure, ran in 2013, just as I was wrestling with writing about plastics for the first time. How I struggled to organize the complexity and volume of the raw material I’d collected.

McPhee offered the idea that each work of narrative nonfiction has a guiding image that shapes it, that helps carry the piece’s meaning or theme. Structure could do some of the piece’s heavy lifting. Alongside his essay were schematics that charted the various shapes his essays had taken. Straight-line narratives that plodded ahead chronologically. But also stories told in the shape of a river. A U-shaped curve. A looping spiral.

Thanks to McPhee, American Petro-topia, a story about one particular plastics plant, eventually took the shape of a circle, a living plant’s lifecycle—from seed to sprout back around to seed. The Benzene Tree, which I wrote for The Atlantic, drew on the image of a wave to tell the story of the rise and fall of entire classes of industrial chemistries. When writing Time Bombing the Future – a story about fluorine and the forgotten chemical legacy of the Manhattan Project ­– I held onto the image of a bomb. The fuse was set in the opening paragraphs. It doesn’t go off until the end. Only a brief coda is offered to move readers through the aftermath.

I’ve returned to McPhee whenever I get stuck, which is often. I write about chemistry – and so for me, writing is an act of synthesis, too. Things get complicated. My notebooks are filled with McPhee-like sketches of all the possible shapes a story might take.

RB: Why do you think it is important to know about the history of plastics and plastic production in how we relate to this material?

RGA: History serves to re-story plastics not as inevitable, but as the product of human invention. Or rather the product of multiple human inventions. There are many kinds of plastic. Each with a multipronged backstory, though these often get simplified into neat linear narratives of flash-in-the-pan genius. Poof! And there was plastic.

But plastics’ origins are more complex than that.

In the early decades of the 20th century, for example, after Bakelite had been invented, there wasn’t a ready and willing market waiting to buy it. Bakelite was the first commercial scale synthetic plastic (i.e., plastic derived from fossil fuels, instead of from milk or cellulose or natural tree-derived latex like gutta percha). In time, Bakelite came to be “the material of a thousand uses.” But that took a lot of convincing, problem-solving, patent defense.

As new classes of resins were invented, they, too, had to be developed and advocated for. Fabricators had to be taught how to work with them, to modify their equipment to accommodate them, and markets propped open long enough for plastics’ protracted research and development to make economic sense.

There’s also the whole history of the chemistries that made plastics plastic, that in some cases, made plastics possible. Here I’m referring to processing aides, or additives that give finished plastics their desired attributes—increasing their rigidity or flexibility, adding color, or enabling them to resist microbes, degradation and fire. In this light, plastics aren’t just material objects. Plastics are a system, a set of chemical and social relations, networks of interconnected refineries, pipelines, feedstocks, intermediaries, additives, smokestacks, outfall pipes, landfills, drummed wastes, products, pollutants, discards, and microfibers and -filaments and -fragments.

Finally, plastics’ possibilities were contingent on wider trends like war and energy policy, on surpluses, and what other products were being made in parallel. And, as called out by scholars like Helen Godfrey (who studies the Victorian era resin gutta percha) and Max Liboiron (who, among many topics, studies marine-based microplastics), on the dynamics of empire, colonialism and the construction of an “away,” the marginalized places forced to bear the consequences of plastics’ mass production (e.g., environmental degradation, waste, factory pollution, etc).

In this way, plastics aren’t just an invention in the scientific or technical sense. They are the product of social innovations, too.

Take the plastic bag, which I wrote about for Topic Stories in 2018 – it marks the collision of multiple inventions – not just the invention of polyethylene resin, but also the invention of a method to scale its production; of the iconic, handled bag design; of the advent of empire (one of polyethylene’s first use was to replace gutta percha in wire coatings used to connect Britain with its imperial holdings); of the supermarket; of public relations and trade associations; and with the invention of disposability, which was socialized, incentivized and otherwise designed into products and social systems.

RB: Recent research is exploring how plastics break down over time and is becoming entangled in the food web. Can you say more about this?

RGA: Plastics are a geological, biological and ecological reality. In the wild, they break apart into smaller and smaller fragments, most too hard to see with the unaided eye. Some of these have entered the food web, including at its base – passing species to species. The implications of this are an active area of inquiry.

The study of microplastics, and even smaller scale nanoplastics, is really an interactional study of plastics as constituents of living systems. On this topic, I am a student all over again, listening and learning from my colleagues as they investigate what plastics mean for life on Earth, and also what plastics have to teach us about Earth’s exquisite biochemistry. Including the chemistry of the human body.

The fact of plastics’ presence in some living systems is one reality; but it is what plastics harbor that may well turn out to be the more pressing concern in terms of plastics’ potential for harm. Like metal to magnet, microplastics can attract and collect heavy metals and other ocean-fairing pollutants like PCBs, and in this way, can deliver them into the food web, of which we are a part.

But the surface of microplastics are also teaming with life, with microbes, algae, even pathogens about which there is so much to understand. Plastics are, in the long arc of time, a relatively new introduction into ecosystems, and an ecosystem unto itself­. The microbiologists Eric Zettler and Linda Amaral-Zettler, along with their then colleagues at Woods Hole, have called this the “plastisphere.” Entire universes dance on the pin-head that is a microscopic fragment.

What all this means is challenging to study. There seems to be regional variation. And plastics vary in size and origin and density and chemistry. They behave ecologically and biochemically in extraordinary diverse ways. From the shoreline, I am wide-eyed and wondrous at all the good work going on this topic, even as I wonder where it’s all going.

There’s a lot of missing plastic yet to be accounted for.

RB: For all we know about the problems and environmental consequences, the use of single-use plastics is still extremely common. Why do you think there’s a disconnect between what we know and how we act?

RGA: The more I learn about plastics, the more I realize its production isn’t driven by consumer demand as much as by the internal logic of the industry itself.

Refining oil and gas is an inefficient process, one that generates tremendous waste. This waste can be burned or buried or otherwise released, or converted into an ever-widening array of interrelated petrochemicals, which includes plastics, but also the chemicals that modify plastics, as well as drugs and dyes and flavorings and fibers and more— some useful, some even critical, but a fair amount foisted onto the public for profit and out of desire to use the already extant by-products of refinement. The plastic bag, again, is a great example. Demand was driven not be customers, or even grocers, but by industry pushing plastic into this market segment.

As the problem of single-use plastic became increasingly evident across the 1970s and 1980s, public relations kicked in, as I understand it, creating the anti-littering campaign, Keep America Beautiful. Plastics, so it went, wasn’t the problem. Litterbugs were!

Even the advent of city and municipal recycling in the U.S. – which Susan MacBride has explained was backed by the plastics industry, but paid for by tax dollars – framed plastics as matter of poor waste management. In other words, a political and industrial problem was (time and again) framed and blamed as problem inherent downstream and in people.

To the extent that a lot of plastics organizing today continues to operate inside this individualistic paradigm, seeking to drive down consumption by shifting perception, habits, and behavior as if independent of the massive juggernaut churning out plastics because – matter being matter– everything has to go somewhere. That’s the disconnect.

Consider drinking straw bans.

One could argue that the straw requiring public outcry are the ones scaled to core into the Earth to siphon even more crude, or that are laid horizontal – end-to-end — to surface fracked gas, which also produces ethane, which becomes ethylene, which becomes polyethylene, the stuff of plastic bags and more.

RB: In biology plasticity is a concept that a species can rapidly evolve in response to changing environmental conditions as a mechanism of survival. It is also an inherent function of brain adaptivity. Do we need to become more ‘plastic’?

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