This essay first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 10)
Although it was barely acknowledged a few decades ago, plastics pollution has emerged as one of the most important environmental issues of our time, due in part to the extraordinary increase in plastics production in recent years, but even more significantly because of the material’s resistance to degradation. Thanks to the internet it no longer takes a dictionary to learn that the word plastic can be traced to origins in classical languages: plastikos (Greek) and plasticus (Latin) both refer to the physical capability of something to be shaped or molded. Indeed, plastics are a class of moldable substances made up of polymers composed of very long chains (backbones) of repeating small units, known as monomers, typically consisting of carbon atoms with bonds to nitrogen or hydrogen atoms. Their durability, strength, light weight, ability to be molded, insolubility, and low production costs led to an enormous increase in production starting after World War II which continues to this day, making plastics the most common manufactured material in the world.
Permeating nearly every aspect of contemporary daily life, perhaps no material is more closely identified than plastic with the transition from the “waste-not-want-not” mentality of the Great Depression to the throwaway mindset of the new millennium. Sources generally point out that no part of the planet from the North Pole to the South Pole is free from plastics today: the atmosphere, the oceans (including deep ocean trenches), rivers, remote mountains, and the soil all contain plastic materials in some form. A quick look at the garbage can and recycling bin in one’s home, too, will reveal a lot of plastic. The current era is often referred to as the Anthropocene, the era during which humans have a major impact on the planet’s ecosystems, and plastics are clearly a major factor in this. Unlike natural materials, most plastics last for an extremely long time—many hundreds of years. Yet despite extremely long durability and resistance to degradation, the most extensive use of plastics is for packaging of consumable items: food and beverage containers, shopping bags, etc. are generally used only once—and only briefly, at that. Ways to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution might include statutory bans on single-use plastics, proper recycling, cleanup activities, use of biodegradable plastics, avoidance of microbeads, and substitution of natural materials for plastic, but the consensus is clearly that none of these solutions alone will solve the problem. This essay identifies a cross-section of resources, ranging from scholarly collections and cultural criticism to popular science and investigative journalism, that could be used to help interested readers understand the nature and extent of the plastic pollution issue and to inspire discussion, perhaps in a classroom setting, about how best to engage in the search for solutions. Sources locating plastics in historical time are the focus of the first section, followed by works that answer the question, What exactly is plastic? Next come works about how deeply plastic is embedded in modern life, sometimes to the benefit of humanity. Works on emerging awareness about the relationship between plastics and environmental health are subsequently presented, followed by resources about how plastic harms specific members of the global ecosystem. Before concluding, the essay turns to sources exploring possible remedies to the dilemma posed by plastics in the environment today.
Margaret A. Manion, Librarian Emeritus, completed 32 years at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she most recently served the library as Head of Reference and Instruction specializing in science and engineering. Previously she was Head of the Chemistry and Biomedical Sciences Library at Northeastern University.