American Petro-topia

The genius and hubris of plastic has been absorbed by every living thing. Is it a curse or evolution’s next step?

| Winter 2016

  • Bakelite resin testing laboratory, circa 1935.
    Photo courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation Via Wikimedia Commons
  • Bakelite billiard balls.
    Photo courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation Via Wikimedia Commons
  • Plastic debris littering a Hawaiian shoreline. Hawaii is located near the center of the North Pacific gyre where debris tends to concentrate.
    Photo by NOAA Photo Library

I knew it was late to be calling him. But that night, with the first warm breezes rustling the curtains, I could sense the coming spring and realised he would turn 73 soon.

For more than a decade, my father and I had talked about returning to the place where he made plastics before I was born. The plant had exerted an inexplicable pull on me for longer than I can remember, since before I had kids, and even before I entered graduate school to study environmental legacy—what is passed from one generation to the next.

So I dialled. He answered quickly. When I asked whether he’d like to go with me, he didn’t hesitate. Within minutes, we had set a date. Two months later, in May 2013, we stood on the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant in Bound Brook, New Jersey, the birthplace of modern plastics.

A century earlier, in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic in his laboratory in Yonkers, New York. Though earlier plastics had been made from plants (biomass), Baekeland’s formulation used fossil-fuel derivatives, which is now the standard.

He called his amber-hued invention Bakelite resin. It was made by reacting formaldehyde with phenol, produced from coal tar traced to fossilized plants. At the time, industrial chemists had just begun to manipulate hydrocarbons extracted from decomposed, ancient life. They would go on to synthesise new molecules by subjecting hydrocarbons to unearthly temperatures and pressures, and mixing them in concentrations and with other elements in combinations never before seen in nature.

After his backyard laboratory caught fire, Baekeland relocated in 1910 to a factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. By the early 1930s, he had built a 125-acre plant along the Raritan River in Bound Brook.

11/25/2017 3:37:08 PM

Well, you are in good company. Hester Lynch (Thrale) Piozzi, a friend of Samuel Johnson's, was the first to use "plant" in this sense in English, writing in her 1789 memoir _Observations of a journey through France_ that "the ground was destined to the purposes of extensive commerce, but the appellation of a plant gave me much disturbance, from my inability to fathom the meaning." So this meaning of "plant" in English was borrowed from French, where it means either "seedling" or "plantation", a collection of things planted in the ground (only later the ground itself). The vertical pipes and buildings reminded francophones of what in English is called a "tree farm" and in French "un plant d'arbres".

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