A new book by a Los Alamos native provides just the latest reminder that America is hooked on plastic.
Allison Cobb’s “Plastic: An Autobiography,” explores the history of plastic products and pollution through a combination of personal memoir, history and poetry and in a set of interconnecting stories.
In a recent article on Cobb and her book by Journal reporter Theresa Davis, Cobb explains that World War II, in which Cobb’s hometown of course played a major role, was key to plastic development in the U.S.
With metal in short supply, a government-industry partnership cranked up plastic production for military items from raincoats to rocket launcher tubes. Polyethylene, a type of plastic, was used by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists to craft the thermonuclear bomb.
After the war came the marketing of plastic packaging and other single-use items for American consumers.
“People who during the war and the Depression had become used to conserving had to be educated to throw things away,” said Cobb.
Americans definitely got the message, and we still do today. 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.
Our daily lives are surrounded by plastic items, in every nook and cranny. Cobb describes a plastic boom, fueled by oil and gas production that provides the essential materials for plastics. The boom continues to expand even as electric cars promise to reduce gasoline use.
Some plastics are pretty easy to stop using, like the plastic bottles of water available just about everywhere, easily replaced in most circumstances by durable containers (including hard plastic ones) filled at the tap. Water from the kitchen faucet is really pretty good.
But the amount of plastic packaging used on modern-day products can be astounding and unavoidable.
It may be OK to buy a durable plastic case for your cell phone, but it probably comes in plastic packaging that’s more voluminous and twice as hard as the product inside.
Cobb’s book, though, is no primer on solving everyday questions regarding personal behavior. She describes the consequences of plastic’s ubiquity. Her subjects include the photo of half a pound of plastic found in the stomach of an albatross that died on an island near Hawaii in 2005. One of the plastic pieces was a tag from a World War II Navy squadron.
Cobb interviewed the son of one of those Naval airmen, as well as descendants of Los Alamos atomic scientists (her own father worked as a LANL physicist) and survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“Now we have plastic fallout all around the world,” she said. “It’s everywhere, and industry is doubling down on making more of it.”
Cobb also visited communities along the Gulf Coast dealing with pollution from refineries and petrochemical plants. These towns, by Cobb’s account, “are on the front lines of both the climate catastrophe and environmental pollution from plastic.”
“These communities don’t have the luxury of despair,” she added.
“I don’t think of plastic as a categorically bad technology,” Cobb told the Journal’s Davis, a Report for America corps member. “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.”
Amen to that.
Somehow, some way, the world’s policymakers need to find a way to make modern life less dependent on a material that, long term, we just don’t have room for.