The Complicated Capitalism of Plastics

People pouring champagne into plastic glasses on a picnic table.
Plastic at the picnic. (Getty Images)

Interested in further reading on plastics? Editor Seyward Darby recommends “How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us” by Jeannette Cooperman at The Common Reader in our Top 5 Picks of the Week. Sign up to receive our Top 5 reads on Fridays.

At The Atlantic, Rebecca Altman examines the history of plastics, the first elements of which were conceived as a way to make money from the byproducts of antifreeze production. Altman helps us follow the carcinogenic compounds — and the money trail — through the Second World War straight into the American living room (Tupperware parties!) and out the back door with the trash, as disposable plastics were heavily marketed to keep profits flowing.

The piece is a fascinating history lesson on how humans prioritize short-term profits and immediate convenience over the future of the planet. While the Earth absorbs capitalism’s toxic byproducts and climate change is in full swing, we tout recycling, which for plastics is fraught, complicated, and largely unsuccessful.

Dad once believed that plastics could be reused indefinitely. I imagine that, maybe, he thought plastics, like their makers, deserved the chance to begin again. When Union Carbide downsized in the 1970s, Dad took severance and stayed home with my siblings until he could figure out what a life beyond plastics might look like. The answer, it turned out, was public administration: For a time, he ran my hometown’s recycling program. Recycling, though, never lived up to Dad’s ideal. Of all the plastics made over his lifetime, less than 10 percent has been effectively repurposed.

This failure, like so many other aspects of our relationship with plastics, is often framed in terms of individual shortcomings; plastics’ producers, or the geopolitics that have made plastics so widespread, are rarely called out. But to read plastics’ history is to discover another story: Demand for plastic has been as manufactured as plastics themselves. Society is awash in throwaway plastics not because of the logic of desire but because of the logic of history and of integrated industrial systems.

For decades, the industry has created the illusion that its problems are well under control, all while intensifying production and promotion. More plastics have been made over the past two decades than during the second half of the 20th century. Today, recycling is a flailing, failing system—and yet it is still touted as plastics’ panacea. No end-of-the-pipe fix can manage mass plastics’ volume, complex toxicity, or legacy of pollution, and the industry’s long-standing infractions against human health and rights.

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