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How Plastic Came Into The World

By Sue Cowing

For a long time men were sad.  Everything in the world was breaking down.  Most obvious were the people and animals; no sooner did they become half-grown and capable than they began to deteriorate, weaken, and turn gray. Then they died and if you left them there, the water and insects came and broke them down. If you buried them in the ground, the same thing happened where you couldn’t see it.  And the insects broke each other down, sometimes after only a few hours.  And plants bore leaves for a day or for a hundred years but in the end they all fell down and were eaten.  At first rocks seemed permanent, but they too broke down and that was forever.  At least the animals could reproduce their kind.


Ambrose, having just become full grown and capable, gave this problem a good deal of thought.  It was hard for him to believe God wanted the world to be this way.  “God created man in his own image,” he said, and then: “God helps those who help themselves.” He began to toy with the materials of the world, trying to make something that would last.  Full of purpose, he would last for a very long time.


He began with air.  His family laughed until one day he showed them that he could turn air into liquid.  Then, when he picked up a block of salt or a lump of coal, mumbling something about molecules, they were quiet.  He drew up complicated formulae for which he had to invent the words.  But always the raw materials were ordinary—limestone, oat hulls, wood flour.  His process finally perfected, he gave it a name, polymerization, and invited the neighbors in to see how common cotton could change properties, become clear like glass.  It was alchemy, and the faint-hearted wondered if God would be angry.  But Ambrose just laughed and said God wanted us to use our brains.


Ambrose had made plastic, and he gave the formula away.  The first products were crude—all brittle and gray.  But soon, with everybody working on it, plastic became tough as a hammer or flexible as gum, thin as skin and watertight, transparent, or brightly colored.  It seemed there wasn’t anything that plastic couldn’t be.  It didn’t rot, corrode, or rust, and was called Lustrex, Geon, Herculoid.  O, it was marvelous stuff!


Soon everything was made of plastic—even piano keys.  Babies cut their teeth on it.  People wore it and were happy because they could raise fewer sheep.  Plastic thrown away years before remained where it was and did not break down.  Pennsylvania was almost full, and people moved away from the dumps and kept buying plastic.  Somebody said, should we rethink this thing?  Stop making the stuff? But everybody else said, what about our pipelines now? Our heart valves?


Unfortunately, before he could see how it all came out, Ambrose died.





from Hawaii Review, Fall 1991

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