Innovation Ecosystem

“What’s entangled and enmeshed in the plastic is us”

An interview with Rhode Island writer Rebecca Altman, whose forthcoming book will be a braided history of plastics, linking together her father’s story with that of Primo Levi’s

Image courtesy of Rebecca Altman

Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., who is working on a book about the plastics industry.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/21/20
A story of convergence with environmental writer Rebecca Altman, who is working on a book about the origins of the plastic industry, weaving together her father’s experiences with those of Primo Levi.
As evidence mounts about the high levels of plastics in our waters, in our food system, and in our bodies, what kinds of corporate responsibility needs to be demanded from the manufacturers as health consequences emerge? How can the story of plastics be re-imagined and re-told, as a story of mass production and mass pollution? What opportunities are there to engage with writers working in Rhode Island on topics outside the mainstream of journalistic content? Would the School of Public Health at Brown consider a series of lectures on the plastics industry by Rebecca Altman?
One of the indelible memories of my years in New Jersey is the view of the Meadowlands from Schuyler Avenue in Kearny, looking out toward the skyline of New York City, with the arching invertebrates of highways crossing the weeds and waterways and, of course, the acrid industrial aroma of the industrial miasma.
The recent scandal, where contaminated dirt was being used by a contractor as fill for the reconstruction of the Route 6-10 Connector, loaded with carcinogens, brings to mind how vulnerable we all are to bad practices of waste disposal and industrial pollution that inevitably ends up in our water, our air, and in our bodies, often as a causal factor for chronic diseases such as asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism in the state.
Part of the educational process of addressing the threat of climate change is the difficulty of defining our own perverse relationship with the fossil fuel industry. Books such as the one being written by Rebecca Altman promises to help change that equation, telling the story of the plastics industry.

PROVIDENCE – We are all intimately connected to plastic in our everyday lives. It is in what we wear, in our toothbrushes and hair brushes, in what we sit on, in our keyboards on which we type, in the cars we drive, in the packaging of our food and our drink.  To the degree that we have ingested plastics as well as the chemicals used to manufacture them, they have become a ubiquitous, persistent part of our bodies.

My connection with environmental writer Rebecca Altman, whom I had never met or talked to before last week, extended to a shared history around plastics we uncovered through our conversation.

Her father had been a chemical engineer who had trained at the University of Rhode Island and had worked at a Union Carbide factory in Piscataway, N.J., where he was involved with the production of polystyrene and Bakelite.

Altman is busy writing a book weaving her father’s life and work in the manufacture of plastics with the writings of chemist Primo Levi, attempting to tell the broader story of the plastics industry as a parable of U.S. industry. One of the factories she has been writing about is a former facility originally owned by the E.I. DuPont Company, which was where the original industrial processes had been undertaken to manufacture Teflon, located on Schuyler Avenue in Kearny, N.J.

The DuPont facility, it turned out, was located right next to the factory where my grandfather had operated his factory, also on Schuyler Avenue in Kearny, on land my grandfather had purchased from DuPont. My grandfather, a plastics pioneer, had been involved in the manufacture of cellulose and polystyrene, the latter product being what Altman’s father had been involved in manufacturing with Union Carbide.

“The development of Teflon at the facility just up the road from your grandfather’s place is where Teflon first went into production,” Altman explained, during a recent interview. “You are like the first person I can talk to about Schuyler Avenue.”

In a story published in Aeon, “Time-bombing the future,” Altman wrote: “It was another Manhattan Project-funded technology, polytetrafluoroethylene [PTFE], the then-new fluorinated plastic best known as Teflon, that helped to broadcast them into the environment.” As Altman detailed, PTFE had been an inadvertent innovation, when a DuPont chemist, Roy Plunkett, who had been studying refrigerants, looking for an alternative to Freon, found a candidate that had spontaneously polymerized and self-assembled into a solid: white, flaky, and with remarkable properties – it was durable and inert.

“The next year, the company moved PTFE into development at its former plastics division across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Kearny, N.J., near the Meadowlands,” Altman wrote. The factory was the site of a devastating fire in 1944.

It turned out that Altman and I also shared similar experiences regarding how reporting on the tragedies of poisoning of Native Americans had changed the trajectories of our writing careers. In my case, it was reporting on the impact of mercury poisoning on the Cree in northwestern Quebec in a story published by the New York Times Magazine in 1979, in which I had been a witness to how a Native culture in North America had been disrupted by the wanton dispersal of mercury from a chlor-alkali plant used in bleaching wood pulp.

In Altman’s case, it had been as a doctoral student at Brown University in environmental sociology, attending a conference in Alaska, listening to three Native women “talk about the mobility of toxics that were affecting them and their way of life, to [be able to] continue their culture, their diet, their subsistence.”

The toxic materials in their bodies, Altman continued, were “at levels far higher than [those of people living in] lower latitudes, even in people who lived near some of the facilities, even workers who were handling the materials.”

“That was my watershed moment,” she said. “I was sitting there, hearing about the long-range transport of long-lived materials, and the egregious injustice of what I was listening to just grabbed onto me.”

Altman said she came to realize that in tracing and following the flow of all those contaminants around the world, she was studying the plastics system writ large, because plastics were a lot more than just the materials. “So much chemistry goes into making plastics,” she said.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with writer Rebecca Altman, in the midst of writing her book, telling what turns out to be a very Rhode Island story of convergence, not just the implications of the persistence of individual molecules or plastics within wildlife, fisheries and humans, but “the wider system that has laid over the land like a net and in which plastics are made possible through all of these chemistries and their far-flung implications.”

ConvergenceRI: Why have plastics been an issue that is so under-covered and under-reported, given that they are often ubiquitous and forever?
ALTMAN: This is a question that I have long thought about and I don’t have an answer to, although, I will say, my colleague, Anja Krieger, who puts together this beautiful podcast, called the “Plastisphere,” just did a pretty long look at this, within the past month. It’s probably worth listening to and reporting on, because what she does is that she goes back to some of the early literature published in English on plastics found in the marine environment, including work that was coming out of Rhode Island, published in major publications, reporting on plastics found in the marine environment. She went and found some of the original scientists, [including] Ed Carpenter and others and talked to them about what happened: Why [was there] this one paper, with one follow-up, and then it’s gone?

Carpenter goes on to tell her a story about someone from the plastics lobby coming to his office soon after publication, and putting pressure on him.

That was a real illuminating moment for me when I was listening to Anja’s podcast. I had connected behind the scenes with her as she was working on this episode, listening to her puzzle this out. This is the question that has been animating her work for a very long time.

ConvergenceRI: Were there similar stories that resonated with you?
ALTMAN: I think another piece of the puzzle as to how [the story of plastics] stayed tamped down for so long was also recently reported by NPR. They weren’t the first to break the story; there were other researchers who have been doing this for a while.

But recycling was sold to us as a public as the solution to a problem, so it was almost like, problem solved. The industry has put quite a lot of money into “teaching” society that the problem with plastics was a waste management issue and [the result of] bad human behavior, like being “litter bugs.”

It’s an industry creation. They were going to teach us how to become “good” recyclers, they put the problem on us, [putting] the collective problem on the individual, and [putting] the solution on taxpayer dollars to manage their waste stream.

They created this idea that society had effectively come up with a “solution” for plastic waste, even as they were generating more and more and more plastics.

And, I think, within the past couple of years, the curtain has been pulled back on that. Now we can see that most of the plastic that goes into the green recycling bins on the curbs are not making it in any substantial way through the entire system and coming back into the world as a good. Our [plastic waste] is either being exported and landfilled – or landfilled.

Some 10 percent of the stuff we’re putting out there on the curb is actually making it through the process.

Myself included, a lot of us wanted very much to believe that recycling was a reasonable solution, that those iconic symbols stamped on the bottom of the material actually meant that it was going to go through that cycle.

ConvergenceRI: Can you put those insights into the broader context of your work?
ALTMAN: I think part of that is that we have been given a false sense of a solution that defines the problem in the wrong way, which is that “plastics is a waste management problem.

Or, a “bagging” and “behavior” problem, rather than a looking upstream at the reality, which is plastics is just the waste product of the fossil fuel industry, having a moment where it can become a commodity one more time.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about your own personal history and how that played a role in your decision to focus on plastics? Apparently, your father worked for Union Carbide, is that correct?
ALTMAN: Yes, my dad is from Rhode Island. He was trained as a chemical engineer at the University of Rhode Island.

He graduated in 1962 and he had a number of amazing job offers. But Union Carbide in New Jersey was the one closest to his sweetheart, so in 1962, he started making polystyrene for Union Carbide on the Raritan River in Piscataway.

ConvergenceRI: The dark side of Rutgers University?
ALTMAN: Right up river from Rutgers. He worked on polystyrene and then he transferred into a division that also made a bunch of the chemicals that were used to make Bakelite, because this was also the plant that the inventor of Bakelite, Leo Baekeland, had designed and built during the Depression. This was an iconic and important factory, it turns out, in the history and development of U.S. plastics.

He was there after Union Carbide had bought it. He mostly worked in polystyrene and then again in the phenol formaldehyde department that made Bakelite.

He left in the early 1970s; he just had a sense he wanted to do more, that this wasn’t going anywhere for him. And he moved in civil service and worked for the city of Plainfield, where, through a granting program, he earned a public administration degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University, at which point he began starting recycling programs. He became the guy to administer recycling systems in my hometown.

ConvergenceRI: What is hometown in New Jersey?
ALTMAN: Park Ridge. It’s a tiny little town.

ConvergenceRI: Is your father still alive?
ALTMAN: Yes. He turned 80 this year.

ConvergenceRI: How does he view your work?
ALTMAN: He has been very gracious. About seven years ago, he and I – as a father-daughter time together, there was no real agenda to it at all – went back down to New Jersey together. And we went and saw the plant where he had worked. Dow had bought it, and it was being torn down.

We went to see it before it was gone, And, that trip was so powerful for us, and the things he told me, and the experiences of that trip, for a number of reasons, moved me to keep going.

When I was doing my doctoral work at Brown I wasn’t totally focused on plastics, I was kind of working on the outskirts of that industry and its implications. But that time with him really made me want to write more about it and dig into it.

He has been so gracious in terms of sharing his thoughts and reflections, and in putting up with my endless phone calls and emails. When I received the book deal on it, he was so emotional about it. He said: “I feel like a nobody. What’s the significance of my life?”

And, I keep telling him, that is what is so interesting about it. It is the story of an ordinary guy going through your career, but your trajectory from a plastics maker into recycling and then, his post-career retirement job was at NOAA, at Woods Hole, working with the fisheries, and plastics came into that work as well.

I feel like his trajectory over his 80 years helped me tell the story of plastics at large, and he’s been really gracious about the whole thing. And, emotional. And, I think, also appreciative to have a chance to answer some of the questions he had as a young man about what he saw and what he was a part of.

He knew enough to ask the questions, but from the vantage point of the 1970s, it was still quite hard to figure out what to make of it all and what to do about it.

ConvergenceRI: Tell me about your book.
ALTMAN: My book is going to be a braided narrative, and I’m calling it an intimate history of plastics, because I’m going to tell both my father’s story as a plastics maker and going to retell the writings and life history of the writer, Primo Levi, who also made plastics.

So, I am going to focus on their two lives and really try to animate and bring forward this other way of knowing about plastics, which is being one of the makers of the story that we don’t really have in the public domain, in a way that would help highlight the complexities of this industry from the inside of it, not from its leadership, but from the people whose lives kind of get caught into that well, using their stories as a springboard as a prism to try to look out and tell the wider history of how plastics came into the world and became a mass product – and then became mass problem.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a faculty position at Brown?
ALTMAN: I do not. I am unaffiliated. I am an alumni at Brown. I taught as an adjunct at Tufts University for a number of years. And then we relocated down here two years ago, for family reasons, and I went all in on the writing. So I’m a freelancer, and I’m working on this book now.

ConvergenceRI: What has been the most surprising part of your discoveries in pursuing this book?
ALTMAN: There have been a number of revelations, both on a personal and intellectual level.

There’s been the deepening of the relationship with my dad and the ways that talking about plastics or a conversation that begins about plastics, ends up opening up into a conversation about his childhood or his family, revealing to me stories I had never heard before.

Which astounds me, that plastics becomes the portal into an understanding of family history in a way that I had no other way to get access to. Sometimes you have to ask indirect questions that will open things up. So there’s been that.

The other thing is, I have, in telling what seems like two stories about two very different men, a kind of literary genius, Primo Levi, whose works are amazing, more often associated with the holocaust than with chemistry, and my father, and the interconnections of their lives, the experiences that they shared in common from a different generation.

There are a surprising number of moments of synchronicity that, as a writer, I just delight in. I then try to figure out how to structure the story around these convergences.

ConvergenceRI: I like that word, convergences.
ALTMAN: There it is. [laughing]

ConvergenceRI: I asked that question because of my own experiences. In 1977 I wrote a story about the impact of mercury poisoning on the Cree in northwestern Quebec that was sold to the New York Times Magazine and after a convoluted path, actually got published in 1979.
ALTMAN: Was that about Grassy Narrows?

ConvergenceRI: No, Grassy Narrows was about an Ojibway tribe in Ontario. This was in Quebec with the Waswanapi Cree. What I uncovered was a story that I never expected to be telling: how a native culture was in disarray as a result of mercury poisoning in the second half of the 20th century. It still haunts me.
ALTMAN: I’ll have to go look for that story. I feel resonance with that. When I applied to Brown to study environmental sociology, I didn’t go in with an agenda. I was deeply interested in corporate influences on community health, interested in the way that society shapes the environment, and the environment shapes human health.

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