When the Future Was Plastic

June 12, 2014 § 1 Comment


An excerpt from “When the Future Was Plastic,” by Deborah Thompson, from the new anthology Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers & Fatherhood:

Man-in-the-Moon-front-coverWhile the environmental activist talks on the radio, I watch an “urban tumbleweed” out the window. It scuttles across the street and attaches to a tree branch, where this synthetic, unnaturally white ghost flaps and sways. The polymeric chains composing this shopping bag entrap my father’s legacy, their memory stronger than mortality. Human life is short, but plastic is forever.

The environmental activist on the air dares us to go a day without plastic—no touching it, no using it, no benefiting from it. At the risk of betraying my father, I decide to take the dare, as I push the plastic “off” button on the plastic radio.

I choose a day I can sleep late, partly so I won’t have to turn off the alarm clock (plastic knob), and partly to make the day shorter. When I rise, I pause at the light switch, and consider cheating by covering my fingers with a towel so I won’t technically touch it, but then remember that the towel is probably a cotton-polyester blend. So I fumble in the dark for my glasses. But they’re plastic, too. Then there’s the toilet seat to deal with, the pvc flooring, the acrylic fibers in the bathmat, my comb, shampoo and conditioner bottles (and the phthalates in their contents), my contact lenses, lens solution bottle, synthetic blends in clothes fabric, the buttons on my shirt, the teeth of my pants’ zipper, the aglet of my shoelaces. And what about all the hidden plastic, such as the synthetic micro-beads in exfoliants? Three minutes after I begin my day without plastic, I give up.

Meanwhile, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an amorphous island of whirling plastic waste, possibly as large as the continent of Africa, expands. Some researchers say there are six additional major plastic-packed gyres in the world. Lethal to the sea creatures, and practically indestructible, these continents of churning plastic keep growing, even as my micro-beads swirl down the drain.

What would this world of synthetic polymers have looked like to their early inventors? Or even to my father upon receiving his doctorate in chemistry in 1962, at the precipice of a brave re-moldable world?

Ronald Earl Thompson, a golden-haired, blue-eyed baby, was born in December 1931 to a household largely without plastic. There may have been a few synthetic polymer products around his St. Augustine, Florida, home—perhaps a Bakelite telephone and a few vinyl record albums—but there were no plastic baby bottles, no plastic-lined disposable diapers, no plastic teething rings, and no sippy cups. Ronnie’s crib was made of solid wood and nails, and the fibers of yarn with which his mother, Lotta, crocheted his baby blanket were wool or cotton, not the poly-blend we’ve accepted as natural today.

It’s not that plastics weren’t invented yet. In fact, the first plastics were nineteenth-century creations. From the Greek word for “malleable,” the term “plastic” was applied to the emerging polymer compounds that were moldable when hot but rigid once cooled. The invention of the original synthetically produced polymer—or extremely long chain of repeating carbon-based molecular units—is generally attributed to Alexander Parkes in 1862. His creation, Parkesine, used nitric acid to modify cellulose. In 1868, John Wesley Hyatt improved on it by combining cellulose and alcoholized camphor to create celluloid, originally intended to replace ivory for billiard balls. Celluloid was soon developed as the substance for film, allowing us by the turn of the century to begin dreaming en masse. (Some of the late Victorian corsets used celluloid. Unfortunately for their wearers, they proved to be highly flammable.) Another cellulose-based polymer was the “artificial silk,” rayon, which, rolled into thin sheets, makes cellophane. Polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride were also discovered in Victorian laboratories, though their future applications were still unimagined. Their commercial breakthrough came in 1907, when, attempting to come up with an alternative for shellac to line bowling alleys (the new fad), Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland patented phenol-formaldehyde reaction techniques, which produced a resin sold under the trademark Bakelite. (If you rub a Bakelite item today—such as my Scottish Terrier napkin ring—you can still sometimes smell formaldehyde.) Until Bakelite, Victorian plastics were primarily laboratory curiosities, their future shapes as yet undreamed of.

I see these chemists as my father’s intellectual ancestors. What elation they must have felt at the emergence of whole new compounds with properties the world had never before seen. What a rush felt from creating substances unknown in nature, substances that could take limitless shapes. Now anything was possible. For those first polymer chemists, stringing monomers into mega-chains must have been like discovering the alchemical secret to turn copper into gold.

By my father’s birth, an array of plastics already permeated American culture: vulcanized rubber, the celluloid of film, the vinyl of records, the Bakelite of silverware handles, radios, and telephones. But these items were still minor luxuries in the Depression era, and, as a young boy, my father’s interactions with plastic would have been limited. He might well have gone whole days without touching a single polymer resin.

By the time my father was tinkering with his first chemistry set—I imagine a clunky metal box chock-full of corker-stopped glass vials—the Second World War was underway. With it came the U.S. government’s push to develop synthetic rubber and other substances in short supply and necessary for modern warfare, including insulators for electrical wires and lighter resins for aircraft. Chemistry was heroic, and plastics were patriotic.

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