Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Perhaps you remember this scene from the 1967 Mike Nichols film, The Graduate, where Benjamin Braddock, played by a boyish Dustin Hoffman, is given some vapid career advice by the insistent family friend, Mr. McGuire.
Well, we have thought about it, and I guess in some sense we have followed Mr. McGuire’s career advice, though perhaps not in the way he intended. We did get into the world of plastics — in particular, how to live without them.
Another of the common meanings ascribed to “plastic” comes in the form of Amex, VISA, Mastercard, Discovery, Diners Club. Will you be paying with plastic?
The actual meaning of the word “plastic” goes way back before bisphenol A, phthalates, recycling symbols, and credit cards. The word “plastic” derives from the Greek verb “plassein,” meaning “to mold or shape,” and here lies the core meaning. Something that is “plastic” can be molded or shaped; it’s malleable, flexible. In short, it’s form can change.
If you’re looking for an informative overview of the history of modern plastic resins, you’ll enjoy an excerpt from Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. The excerpt appeared in Scientific American and was aptly entitled “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World.”
The deeper – non-resinous – beauty of the word “plastic” is most evident in the world of the brain. The world of neurology.
In 2007, my father had a stroke. A blood vessel in his brain couldn’t handle the pressure and burst, causing hemorrhaging and related brain damage leading to some paralysis on his right side, speech impairment, and memory fluctuations. For the first few days after the stroke he spoke only Bengali, his mother tongue. Access to his English-speaking neurons was somehow impeded, and his brain defaulted to its original language option. A neurological reboot of sorts.
These changes fascinated me and led me to a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself,” written by an innovative psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Dr. Norman Doidge. This book has since been described as “the best general book on the brain.”
Doidge makes clear through riveting case studies how the brain actually does have the ability to change its structure and function, even into old age. For example, we meet a woman born with half a brain that rewires itself to work as a whole. There is another woman labelled “retarded” who discovers how to change her deficits with brain exercises, and now cures others.
And there are case histories of people who suffered debilitating strokes and made practically complete recoveries through exercises and sheer determination that essentially rewired their brain. As my father recovered, I could see this happening. Neuroplasticity in action.
The brain is magnificently plastic.
Now isn’t that a beautiful use of the word plastic?! A use that truly honours the essence of the word. I think so.
So don’t ever let anyone tell you that “plastic” is an ugly word. Help me on this mission of reclaiming the word “plastic” from the clutches of petroleum-based molded products and an industry that has sullied the word “plastic” and its true noble meaning over the past century.
As I was writing this post, Chantal read it and said to me, “I still don’t like the word plastic.”
That’s because the word has been tainted. In our lifetimes to date, we’ve always associated the word “plastic” with the the toxic, polluting substance associated with it.
But it’s not the word plastic that is ugly, which is why I hope we can one day societally reclaim it and appreciate its true beauty.
It’s the toy duck laced with chemical toxins and marketed aggressively to babies that is ugly.