Reflection by Nickolas Abbot ‘20, History and International Relations Double Major
On Monday, Oct. 21, the LMU History Department co-sponsored an event called Designed for Disposal: The Making of the Global Plastic Crisis. The panel discussion with journalist Susan Freinkel and Joshua Goldstein, associate professor of history and east Asian languages and cultures at USC, explored many dimensions of the global plastic crisis, complicated by globalism, economic systems, and the meteoric growth of the population in the past decades. Tracing the rise of the global synthetic plastics industry in the late nineteenth century, Freinkel discussed how many of the plastics we use today were created as chemical experiments, which led to inventors trying to find uses for these new materials and then creating new products and needs. At first, plastics seemed like a blessing, able to replicate materials such as metals, shells, wood, ivory, promising to save these materials and animal products from overuse and extinction. With the rise of the petrochemical industry in the 1920s and 1930s, modern plastic consumption began to take shape; inventions such as synthetic nylons were so popular that violence was reported in several U.S. cities upon their launch due to department stores selling out. Following the end of World War II, plastic consumption grew over 500% in 1955, finally coming to eclipse steel production in the U.S. in 1979. Why did this occur so quickly, and what items helped to facilitate its rise? Freinkel explained that the rise of plastic came with the idea of “throwaway living,” which saw the replacement of countless previous staples such as razors, lighters, and pens with disposable plastic variants. This quick and easy disposable lifestyle grew along with the use of plastics in design and fashion in the 1960’s and 1970’s, allowing for designers and manufacturers to build things they had never thought possible before.
As this plastic-oriented consumerism came to dominate our material culture, a new economic cycle came to dominate plastics production, described by Prof. Goldstein as “produce, consume, dispose.” This simplified system disregards other options and design elements such as “repair, reuse, repurpose, clean, maintain,” shifting the burden of properly collecting and disposing of plastics to the consumer. Prof. Goldstein argued that the entire system of design surrounding plastics must change in order to reduce resource consumption, increase durability, and minimize instances of planned obsolescence leading to disposal. This highly disposable system leads to tons of scrap materials, which are sold to recycling and disposal centers, often in nations with poor regulation, to undergo toxic processes to be resold to producers. In the past, Asia has been the hub for these efforts, with evidence showing that these recyclers and producers were the leading cause of ocean plastic pollution until the past decade. When many nations began announcing a shutdown of these efforts, producing nations, like the United States, were forced to keep recycling in house. By understanding the history of plastics and the systems that continue to reinforce obsolescence and bypass corporate responsibility, people can become more conscious consumers and global citizens, helping others to make the necessary changes to help fix this broken system.