A Conversation With Susan Freinkel, Decorated Science Writer

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Freinkel-Post.jpg A science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and a wide variety of other national publications, Susan Freinkel is the author, most recently, of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, which combines reporting, scientific studies, and economic data to tell a compelling story about how plastic affects our lives. For the last ten years or so, Freinkel has worked as a freelance writer out of San Francisco, covering subjects as varied as coyote hunts to adoption to weight control to new psychiatric treatments.

Here, Freinkel discusses why moving away from petroleum-based plastics offers an opportunity to create a new generation of polymers with a lower carbon footprint and fewer toxic chemicals; why tarring all types of plastics with the same anti-plastic brush only complicates efforts to deal with many of our plastic-related problems, such as pollution and low recycling rates; and why she's excited about the promise of green chemistry.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say I'm a science writer, then usually qualify it by adding "science-lite" since I don't have any formal training and my stories are rarely strictly about science. What interests me is how scientific and technological advances affect history, culture, and the environment. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story contains a lot of information about polymer chemistry, engineering, and invention. But at the end of the day, I was less interested in what was involved in creating these new materials than in the ways in which the arrival of plastics has shaped our world -- for better and worse.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

In the realm of plastics, that would be the push to develop polymers that come from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. Right now, these bioplastics account for only about one percent of all plastics produced and most are being made from corn, sugar cane, or other food crops. But it's predicted that eventually most plastics will be bio-based. And hopefully most will be derived from non-food sources, such as agricultural waste or even sewage. Moving away from petroleum-based plastics offers an opportunity to do plastics "right" -- to create a new generation of polymers with a lower carbon footprint, less pollution and waste, fewer toxic chemicals, more recyclability. Whether bioplastics producers fully embrace that opportunity remains to be seen.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

People talk about plastic as a single entity without recognizing that the term applies to a big and diverse family of materials, some of which are immensely beneficial and some of which we can and probably should live without. Unfortunately all plastics get tarred with the same anti-plastic brush and that can complicate efforts to deal with many of our plastic-related problems, such as pollution, low recycling rates, and hazardous chemicals. For instance, I've seen plastic sippy cups labeled "BPA-free," which sounds great, as if the manufacturer has responded to concerns about bisphenol A. But in truth the cups are made from a plastic, polypropylene, that has never contained BPA and that feel-good label still doesn't tell me whether there are other potentially hazardous chemical additives in the cup.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I am very excited about the promise of green chemistry. Historically, chemists haven't given much thought to the health or environmental effects of the molecules they design, which is one reason we are now playing catch-up, trying to determine which of the 82,000 chemicals in commerce are hazardous or benign. But if, from the get-go, chemists design molecules that won't persist in the environment or disrupt hormones or have other toxic effects, then you don't have to worry about what happens when those chemicals go into widespread use. Universities are starting to incorporate these principles in training the next generation of chemists. Meanwhile, many major corporations are applying green chemistry to their research and development initiatives.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The obsession with degradability. It's great that there is increasing concern about the problem of waste and what happens to stuff when we're done with it. But there's too much focus on how to make waste go away and not enough on how to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. Are biodegradable plastic shopping bags really an improvement over conventional plastic bags? True, they won't linger in landfills (or so it is hoped), but you're still using valuable finite resources to make a bag for the one-time trip from the checkout counter to your kitchen counter, which is why I favor reusable bags. It's tempting to seek technological solutions to what is really a social problem -- namely, over-consumption.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I was really fascinated by the science of packaging. Who knew there was even such a discipline? But it turns out there are entire university programs devoted to building a better box, which makes sense considering the vast amount of global commerce dependent on packaging. For instance, I learned that the reason that there's now a huge market in bagged salad greens is because polymer engineers figured out how to make a plastic film with just the right amount of permeability needed to keep lettuce fresh. I would have liked to spend more time with packaging scientists exploring the hows and whys of what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, but it didn't really fit into the general organization of the book.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

I have huge admiration for architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Their firm, MDBC, now runs a program to assess and certify products for their health and environmental safety, their cradle-to-cradleness.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition a recently-founded group, has done a great job bringing attention to the problems of disposable and single-use plastics by adding a fourth R -- refuse (as in refuse those throwaway freebies like straws, cups, or bags) -- to the sustainability mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle.

And science writer Rebecca Skloot wrote one of the very best non-fiction books I have ever read. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of how cancer cells taken from a poor, dying black woman in 1951, without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine. The book is a model of reporting and storytelling -- it took Skloot ten years to complete. I particularly admire how she probes the grey zones of race, class, and medical ethics without ever losing sight of the fundamental injustice done to Henrietta Lacks and her family.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I originally wanted to be a public interest lawyer or a community organizer.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Environmental Health News. It's a great aggregator of news and research.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

My son was singing this the other day and I can't shake it: "Come On Up to the House," by Tom Waits.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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