I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.
Is there a patch of planet earth untouched by plastics? At Aeon, Rebecca Altman visits New Jersey’s old Union Carbide plant, where her father used to work, and where modern petrochemical plastic was first manufactured. Through this father-daughter tour, she assess the worldwide legacy of petrochemistry, its origins, etymology and toxic ubiquity, and her dad talks about what he saw at the factory and how, for him, recycling is a form of redemption.
In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.
Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.
In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.