A brief history of ‘toxic’ plastics

I love Allan Griff’s forewords to his column in PlasticsToday. If you haven’t read any of his missives, you can check out the most recent one here. He always prefaces his column with some variation on the theme of, “plastics are not toxic. None of them.”

I’ve spent a few hours over lunches and dinners with Allan, commiserating with him over the fake science of toxic plastics and what we in the industry can do to set the record straight. It behooves us to take up the fight because all of us who have careers and make our living in the plastics industry depend on the science ultimately winning out over the hype. However, toxic plastic has a long history and changing the decades-long image of plastics won’t be easy.

Melamine dinnerware
In 1951, the Vitrified China Association issued a report claiming that melamine harbored bacteria and was chemically unstable, releasing formaldehyde (or embalming fluid) when exposed to hot water.

Open up the book by Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History, and you’ll find some interesting background information. In the 1950s and 1960s, Meikle explains, plastic was decried by such notables as author Norman Mailer, who deplored plastics not so much because he saw it as something physically toxic, but as socially and morally toxic to the human race. Plastic was a synthetic, something that was unnatural and threatened to cut humanity from its natural, biological past . . . divorcing us from Mother Earth. 

“For more than two decades Mailer conducted a hostile campaign against plastic. The first attack came in 1963 while discussing the nuclear apocalypse in a monthly Esquire column," Meikle writes. Mailer defined the existential meaning of the Cuban missile crisis not in terms of nuclear weapons but as “the proliferation of plastic. . . . We had ‘divorced ourselves from the materials of the earth, the rock, the wood, the iron ore . . . we looked to new materials which were cooked in vats, long complex derivatives of urine which we called plastic,’ ” Meikle writes, quoting Mailer. 

What Mailer and others fail to recognize is that everything comes from our natural surroundings—from Mother Earth—including plastic. As Professor Emeritus Igor Catic of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, has written in many published papers, plastic is a natural, biobased material. Prof. Catic reminds us that plastic is derived from the Earth, from Earth-bound fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, making plastic just as natural and part of Mother Earth as plants and minerals (coal included) along with diamonds and gemstones. All of this begs the question, Why is plastic seen as something unnatural, toxic and harmful? The Earth is full of harmful plants, which, when their harmful substances are used in the right amount, become healing medicines. 

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