“American Petro-topia: Plastics Run in my Family, But Their Inheritance Is in Us All”

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The Story

“American Petro-topia: Plastics Run in my Family, But Their Inheritance Is in Us All”
by Rebecca Altman
Aeon, March 11, 2015

The Pitch

Dear Pam,

I write to gauge your interest in developing a piece with me that would explore the cultural, social and environmental legacy of synthetic plastics.

In 2013, I accompanied my father, once a plastics-maker, to the former Union Carbide plant where he worked in the 1960s. He was part of an outfit that made 2000 lbs of polystyrene every hour of everyday of every year he worked there. His factory, now in ruins, happens to also have been the birthplace of the first synthetic (fossil-fuel derived) plastic, Bakelite (invented in 1907). Bakelite, and the next generation of plastics that it inspired (like polystryene), changed US society to the extent that today, poet Adam Dickinson now rightfully calls us, “a people of the resin.”

This journey with my father would serve as the backbone of the piece, as its narrative through-line. The piece would be a journey back through time, to his plant, and before that, to my grandfather’s 1920’s lab at MIT, where he was among the first generation trained in the emergent field of chemical engineering. He was part of the materials revolution—creating the basis for how the next two generations would strip hydrocarbons from natural sources and engineer them into substances never before seen on Earth.

I am an environmental sociologist who studies the social, health and environmental consequences of my forebears’ technologies. We are now four generations into the Petrochemical Age. Ocean plastics now outnumber plankton. Human bodies harbor a range of petrochemical pollutants. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly concludes that our use of fossil fuels to make energy and synthetic materials has affected the chemistry of our climate and our biology. Our plastics will show up in the fossil record for this era. And yet, modern medicine relies heavily on plastic, so too does our electronic, agriculture and transportation infrastructure. Bakelite is now a prized collectible that has spawned its own knock-off industry: fakelite.

Some of the hazardous waste leftover from polystyrene production at my father’s plant was found buried at the back of a farm an hour south, in Toms River, New Jersey, where children were succumbing to pediatric cancers at an unusual rate. (Dan Fagin just won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of what happened there.) As part of our time together, my Dad and I visited that farm, now a Superfund site, and also a park where a memorial had been built to honor the town’s children who had died. For my father, now seventy-three, this journey was, as he told me, spiritual. At the memorial, he was a man, grieving. Him following the trail of plastics’ consequences is emblematic of our bigger rethinking of plastic, our hope for redemption (which ironically is also the name we give to plastics recycling centers).

American plastics and petrochemicals, after a period of decline, is once again, on the brink of new investment in its manufacturing infrastructure. In the end, my goal is to place these interwoven personal and sociological threads within the larger context of the reflowering of this industry—a trend sparked by the rapid growth of the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking, which is now supplying the next generation of plastics production with a new raw material: ethylene. This sets the stage for me to talk about a generation of materials history at a point where we might rethink what we make, how we make it and what kind of legacy we really want to leave for future generations.

Analytically and thematically, I want to play with the linguistic and social tension that exists between the terms plastics and plants, which, surprisingly, is quite fertile ground. Long before plastics were made from oil, they were made from plants like corn and soy. I’d also like to explore the meaning behind the words plastic and plant, and raise up the irony of why we call plastics factories, and other sites of heavy manufacturing, plants, when in fact, industrial plants are antithetical to most plant life and life in general. How is it that factories and fauna have come to share the same name? I have spoken with numerous other scholars: historians of plastics and science, linguists, epidemiologists and other environmental sociologists. No one could identify a clear narrative as to why, in English, we started calling factories plants. Besides describing the now ubiquitous, moldable material, plastic is also a term used by biologists to describe species, curiously often plants, that are highly adaptable to rapidly shifting environmental conditions. To me, given the extent of environmental and human damage already wrought by plastics, there is something about our own capacity to adapt that is worth exploring as well. All of this would be compared with the emergence of faux plants, artificial turf, inedible, decorative fruit, plants with everlasting blooms—all, to me, symbols of just how far we’ve let plastics take hold of us.

I see the piece as between 4000 and 5000 words, and can be flexible in the timing of its delivery. I intend it to be both informative and elegiac, about plastics and family, lineage and legacy, our language and our materials culture, our health and the health of the enviornment, and ultimately, about our relationship to a material that has changed human civilization (and for that matter, the geological record) within the span of a single century.

I am a sociologist of health and the environment, and an ethnographer specifically. I hold a PhD from Brown University. My research and writing specializes in the study of environmental legacy—environmental problems that transcend place and time, and that are passed from one generation to the next. My academic research has been published in the American Journal of Public HealthEnvironmental Health Perspectivesthe Journal of Health and Social Behavior, among other journals. I am working on a book about persistent pollutants and environmental legacy for Vanderbilt University Press (due out in 2016). I sometimes teach seminars for Tufts University’s Community Health Program and serve on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

Some of my creative nonfiction has appeared in a special edition of Interdisciplinary Studies on Literature and Environment (ISLE) on climate and environment change, and a shorter piece, relevant to my work on chemistry and family, was published by the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts: (matterpress.com/journal/2014/06/30/many-parts). Other work has appeared in Brain, ChildEnvironmental Health NewsFull Grown People and had been regularly featured on OdeWire.com, the now defunct blog for the Intelligent Optimist (formerly Ode Magazine).

As a writing sample, I’ve included (below) a small snippet of unpublished writing about plants and plastics. It could be included-and expanded upon— in the proposed essay.

Thank you for your consideration of my proposal. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and, if interested, for the possibility to collaborate.

Warmest regards,




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