ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists used polyethylene, a type of plastic, to craft the thermonuclear bomb.
By the time Allison Cobb’s father arrived at Los Alamos in 1970, his work as a nuclear physicist focused on nonproliferation, or reducing the global spread of nuclear weapons.
But plastic products would go on to become universal in the lives of modern Americans.
Cobb’s new book, “Plastic: An Autobiography,” explores the history of plastic products and pollution.
“I don’t think of plastic as a categorically bad technology,” Cobb said. “Plastic makes airplanes and cars lighter so they consume less fuel, and it is used in essential medical technologies. But the idea of producing single-use throwaway items from a material that lasts forever – that just doesn’t make any sense from a sustainability perspective.”
The U.S. generated about 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016 – the largest amount of any country – according to the World Bank and research from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Cobb’s book research took her to Hawaii, San Francisco and the Gulf Coast to document plastic pollution.
She found that World War II was a turning point for plastic in the U.S.
A government-industry partnership ensured a demand for plastic as metal was scarce.
A range of military items from raincoats to rocket launcher tubes were manufactured as plastic products.
After the war, the industry shifted to marketing plastic packaging and other single-use items for the average American consumer.
“People who during the war and the Depression had become used to conserving had to be educated to throw things away,” Cobb said.
But plastic trash has consequences.
Cobb’s book cover is a photo of half a pound of plastic found in the stomach of an albatross that died on a small island near Hawaii in 2005.
One plastic piece recovered from the bird was a World War II Navy tag from a squadron assigned to the Pacific.
The environmental author interviewed the son of one of those Naval airmen, as well as descendants of Los Alamos atomic scientists and survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“In the ’50s, we had nuclear fallout all around the world,” she said. “Now we have plastic fallout all around the world. It’s everywhere, and industry is doubling down on making more of it.”
As a longtime Environmental Defense Fund writer, Cobb has witnessed the last decade’s skyrocketing petroleum production alongside a rise in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
Refineries separate ethane and propane from raw petroleum and natural gas, and then heat treat those chemicals to create the essential ingredients of plastic.
Cobb’s journey to learn about plastic in America took her to communities along the Gulf Coast dealing with hazardous pollution from refineries and petrochemical plants.
She visited with residents of Freeport, Texas. The community south of Houston is home to Dow Chemical, a major plastics producer.
“I learned joy and resilience from communities who are on the front lines of both the climate catastrophe and environmental pollution from plastic,” Cobb said. “These communities don’t have the luxury of despair.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.