Excerpt from The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

The World Without Us

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"Exfoliants: little granules that massage you as you bathe." He selects a peach-colored tube of St. Ives Apricot Scrub; its label reads, 100% natural exfoliants. "This stuff is okay. The granules are actually chunks of ground-up jojoba seeds and walnut shells." Other natural brands use grape seeds, apricot hulls, coarse sugar, or sea salt. "The rest of them," he says, with a sweep of his hand, "have all gone to plastic."

On each, listed among the ingredients are "micro-fine polyethylene granules," or "polyethylene micro-spheres," or "polyethylene beads." Or just polyethylene.

"Can you believe it?" Richard Thompson demands of no one in particular, loud enough that faces bent over microscopes rise to look at him. "They're selling plastic meant to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers, right into the ocean. Bite-size pieces of plastic to be swallowed by little sea creatures."

Plastic bits are also increasingly used to scour paint from boats and aircraft. Thompson shudders. "One wonders where plastic beads laden with paint are disposed. It would be difficult to contain them on a windy day. But even if they're contained, there's no filter in any sewage works for material that small. It's inevitable. They end up in the environment."

He peers into Browne's microscope at a sample from Finland. A lone green fiber, probably from a plant, lies across three bright blue threads that probably aren't. He perches on the countertop, hooking his hiking boots around a lab stool. "Think of it this way. Suppose all human activity ceased tomorrow, and suddenly there's no one to produce plastic anymore. Just from what's already present, given how we see it fragmenting, organisms will be dealing with this stuff indefinitely. Thousands of years, possibly. Or more."

A

In one sense, plastics have been around for millions of years. Plastics are polymers: simple molecular configurations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that link together repeatedly to form chains. Spiders have been spinning polymer fibers called silk since before the Carboniferous Age, whereupon trees appeared and started making cellulose and lignin, also natural polymers. Cotton and rubber are polymers, and we make the stuff ourselves, too, in the form of collagen that comprises, among other things, our fingernails.

Another natural, moldable polymer that closely fits our idea of plastics is the secretion from an Asian scale beetle that we know as shellac. It was the search for an artificial shellac substitute that one day led chemist Leo Baekeland to mix tarry carbolic acid—phenol—with formaldehyde in his garage in Yonkers, New York. Until then, shellac was the only coating available for electric wires and connections. The moldable result became Bakelite. Baekeland became very wealthy, and the world became a very different place.

Chemists were soon busy cracking long hydrocarbon chain molecules of crude petroleum into smaller ones, and mixing these fractionates to see what variations on Baekeland's first man-made plastic they could produce. Adding chlorine yielded a strong, hardy polymer unlike anything in nature, known today as PVC. Blowing gas into another polymer as it formed created tough, linked bubbles called polystyrene, often known by the brand name Styrofoam. And the continual quest for an artificial silk led to nylon. Sheer nylon stockings revolutionized the apparel industry, and helped to drive acceptance of plastic as a defining achievement of modern life. The intercession of World War II, which diverted most nylon and plastic to the war effort, only made people desire them more.

After 1945, a torrent of products the world had never seen roared into general consumption: acrylic textiles, Plexiglass, polyethylene bottles, polypropylene containers, and "foam rubber" polyurethane toys. Most world-changing of all was transparent packaging, including self-clinging wraps of polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, which let us see the foods wrapped inside them and kept them preserved longer than ever before.

Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved.

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