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Innovation Ecosystem

Paper or plastic? Sense and sensibility

A conversation between two women writers from Rhode Island reveals how our own intimate family histories have become entangled in the toxic industrial legacies of 20th century, poisoning our future

Photo by Richard Asinof

The cover of MIlltown, by Kerri Arsenault

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/22/21
The plastics industry and the paper industry personify so much of what is wrong with the legacy of corporate industry manufacturing in the U.S., where the workers and their communities were sacrificed for corporate profits, leaving behind a disastrous environmental legacy. Two Rhode Island women writers, Rebecca Altman and Kerri Aresenault, are attempting to untangle the legacies of plastics and paper.
Will the pushback from community activists be enough to halt plans for an experimental facility to incinerate medical waste planned near the East Greenwich-West Warwick town boundary? What are the upstream solutions for downstream pollution from plastics and paper manufacturers? What are the opportunities to change the equation around health care that connects chronic diseases to industrial toxic pollution? What is the best way to make plastic pollution more visible to consumers – in terms of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean?
The power of storytelling to be found in the writings of Altman and Arsenault could prove to be a powerful new tool in the efforts to mobilize citizens in support of a Rhode Island Green New Deal, by using their work and their stories across numerous media platforms. Will the new RI PBS Weekly series do an interview with Arsenault and Altman as part of the expanded new format? How would Arsenault and Altman be received as guests on “A Lively Experiment” to talk about the politics and environmental pollution and milltowns? Would Providence Business News do a feature story about the legacy of plastic pollution in Narragansett Bay? Would Joe Paolino be willing to engage with Arsenault or Altman on “In The Arena?”

PROVIDENCE – Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., an environmental sociologist who is in the midst of writing The Song of Styrene, a history of plastics that interweaves her own family’s story in the legacy of the plastics industry, and Kerri Arsenault, author of the recent book Milltown, how a paper mill destroyed a small Maine town, talk almost every day with each other on the phone.

The personal connection between the two women writers is a tale of finding common ground in grappling with how best to tell the story of 20th century industrial legacies of paper, plastic and factory towns – and the history of heavily polluted rivers – the Blackstone River in Rhode Island and the Androscoggin River in Maine – that always seem to run through our lives, carrying a legacy of poisonous toxins and the promise of an early death.

On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 21, as part of a virtual “Valley Talks,” sponsored by the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Altman and Arsenault engaged in a structured dialogue, titled, “Paper or Plastic? Legacies of Work, Family, Community.”

Altman and Arsenault were joined by Jonathan Berard, director of Rhode Island Clean Water Action, for a fascinating, two-hour, wide-ranging “intimate” conversation about the inanimate, tracing legacies to the immigrant families who found work in the mills of Woonsocket, and the environmental consequences of the manufacturing industries. At its heart, the conversation was very much a Rhode Island story.

It may seem, at first blush, far removed from all the personal and political crises in our current world. But given the ongoing failure of the electric grid in Texas, caused by the frigid cold wave precipitated by the descent of a polar vortex and the greed of fossil fuel industries, causing millions to go without heat, without electricity and without clean drinking water, all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 in the U.S. and sickened more than 82 million in the last year, it is a conversation that seems central to our future survival.

We cannot talk about “innovation” until we address the toxic legacy of our industrial engines. What runs through each of the stories is a metaphoric polluted river, linking all of us to the difficult choice: paper or plastic?

Here is a major excerpt of the conversation between Altman, Arsenault and Berard, providing an opportunity to listen in to the dramatic dialogue about our future.

Intimate stories about inanimate things
Arsenault began the conversation with a metaphoric leap, talking about the impetus behind her book, in which she described what befell the small town in Maine where she grew up, a town that became totally captive of the paper industry that governed all aspects of life and death in the community.

ARSENAULT: “Paper or plastic?” Our writing contains very intimate stories about very inanimate things – paper and plastic.

Inanimate objects have animated our work and our conversations on the page and on the phone for a few years. Right now, we talk to each other almost daily.

And, our intimacy, I believe, is because paper and plastic are part of the global system of changing climate – pollution, industry, family and legacies.

And those systems are as complex as the human heart, which is also at the heart of our books, too.

In fact I think paper and plastic, for all you non-environmental people, or academics, connects us all, and here’s why.

If you look around the room that your are sitting in, because we are all at home, how much white paper do you see? Make a list, scratch it out, or write it down on a piece of paper. I think once you start looking around – I see my notebook, I see a matt frame, I see a banana sticker I took off earlier. There’s just no end to things that contain paper.

Probably, most of you known how paper is made. And maybe some of you may know how it is made white. But do you know who makes paper? I do.

A paper town
I come from a paper mill town. My father, he worked in a paper mill for 45 years in Maine, as did my grandparents and my great grandparents. For more than 100 years, paper was part of our daily bread. For breakfast, we breathed that egg-y odor of the sulfur coming out of the mills. That ka-chink of logs riding the conveyor belt to the wood chipper that accompanied our lunch. Paper paid for the meatloaf we ate for supper. And, at night, the hum of the paper machines “lullaby-ed” us to sleep.

Paper paid for my clothes; paper put me through college. It gave me dignity and a future. I was a first-generation college student, living our American dream my family had worked really hard to achieve over a hundred years, and it was all because of paper.

But, did you know what paper also did? It probably killed my father and my grandfather and my grandmother – and hundreds, maybe thousands of people in that community.

Paper mills use chlorine-bleaching agents to make paper white. The resulting byproduct is one of the most dangerous families of toxins known to humankind – dioxin.

People exposed to dioxin are most at risk for cancer and heart disease. The government, the EPA and industry lobbyists, they won’t admit this, because they say it is hard to prove the links.

But I see the evidence in all those graves [in my hometown]. Dioxins can impair fertility, depress sperm count, harm childhood development; they can damage or suppress immune systems, cause liver damage, cause infant cardiac malfunctions, cause neural development issues, accelerate female development and harm unborn fetuses.

And while I no longer live in Maine, I still carry the legacy of paper. We all do, really, it’s in our DNA, and here’s why.

Tainted food supply
More than 90 percent of human exposure to dioxin comes from our food supply, in the fatty part of living things like pork, lobster, cows, and the byproducts such as butter, milk, eggs, and Parmesan cheese.

And because dioxins bio-accumulate the further up the food chain they travel, the more concentrated and toxic they become.

Until the dioxin reaches the very top of the food chain, human babies, whose breast-feeding mothers can expose nursing infants to dioxin 77 times higher than the EPA recommends.

Dioxins are also persistent; they will linger in the environment and in our bodies, almost forever, even in the tiniest amounts imaginable. They are enough to make us sick.

As Rachel Carson made clear in Silent Spring, it’s the little things that count. In fact, our body burden – the total amount of toxic chemicals present in our body, I think that’s the right definition, it is exactly the burden an individual must bear because our industries, our government, our regulatory agencies can’t or won’t.

In America, the fundamental need is for our bodies to be respected. It has always been at odds with industry goals. History has shown this to be true, from the cotton fields of Virginia to the rural small mill towns of Maine, to the textile mills of Rhode Island – where, actually, my grandfather had worked before he moved to Maine.

He worked right in the same area of Woonsocket where the museum is located today.

The paper industries left certain populations to drag in the peripheries, where you don’t bother to look, because there are no political concerns. Yet these people lived on the front lines of environmental disasters, on the razor’s edge of social inequities, at the end of human dignity.

The people aren’t killed directly; that would be too kind. We are in a state of gradual, perpetual injury, exposed to the possibility of death at all times. So, the next time you use a piece of paper, just don’t think of my family, but of your own. And, Milltown is about broader things, more than one mill town, beyond New England, too.

It’s also about identity, which is the same thing, I believe, that Rebecca’s book is about, too. I spent 18 years trying to find out what those missing links were in my family tree to understand what the absences could mean.

Family identity
For Arsenault, there was an immediate sense of connection with Altman – whom she said was “interrogating” many of the same things, because paper and plastic were linked, not just materially, but the way they arced through history. And, also with the personal stories around each other’s families, and the environmental problems associated with both industries. “Her dad and my dad were making the very things that could be killing us,” she said.

As Arsenault explained it, Altman’s Ph.D. [from Brown] focused on persistent pollutants and the environmental legacies on the human body. She had a father whose work at Union Carbide foretold Altman’s environmental career and obsession as an environmental sociologist. Equally important, Arsenault continued, was Altman’s skill as “a graceful and generous writer.” This was also a story that she had to tell, just like me, Arsenault added.

A dirty river runs through it
ARSENAULT: It all ends in a river somewhere. We are all connected to a river somewhere along the way, because the mills are all built on rivers.

ALTMAN: I went to college along the Androscoggin River. My mom’s family grew up along this river. U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie grew up along the Androscoggin River.

ARSENAULT: The Androscoggin River was primary to everything in this book. The research in my book took on the likeness of a dirty river. It is an aggregate of everything that I found, like a river that dumps its sediment into the sea. How dioxin accumulates. I’m sorry if I’m getting too metaphorical, I can’t help it; it’s in my head.

ALTMAN: There is a story in your book about how the Androscoggin River needed oxygen. And, the parallels with your father, who also required oxygen. Putting those together.

ARSENAULT: Just like the Blackstone River. Did I say this? Maybe I did. What I was saying was that the Blackstone was one of the most polluted rivers. The Androscoggin was named one of the top 10 polluted rivers in the U.S. in 1973, when I was five or six. They had to put bubblers into it, to feed oxygen into the river. And, they would do all this testing, poking and prodding of the river, to test the dioxin levels and the oxygen levels.

And, when my father got sick, with esophageal cancer and lung cancer, which is during the middle of the book, it wasn’t the impetus of this book, I should tell people, it’s not like a father’s death story, necessarily.

But they started to do the same thing to him [as they were doing to the river], pumping oxygen into him. The possibility of death was always on his back, like a bull’s eye, he was dying, like the river. We had all the fish in the river die. There was zero oxygen. How can anything live with zero oxygen? It is pretty elemental.

But the plot of my book, and I think it’s about the plot of your book, too, the coming and going home, of family, the recalibrating of what it all means, every time you touch on it.

ALTMAN: It becomes inseparable, at some point. I think my interest in plastics came out of wanting to connect with my dad. Whom I am close with, but just like with plastics, something can be familiar and still feel quite inscrutable

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