Friday, March 9, 2018

Say the Secret Word: Plastics

Big news in the small but star-studded enclave of Malibu, California: the city council has just voted to ban disposable plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, and plastic eating utensils from its restaurants. Starting this June, Malibu’s Starbucks and McDonald’s branches will have to find other ways to serve their customers who want to sip a soda or stir Splenda into a venti half-caf 2% extra-foamy latte.  It’s not just that the Malibu celebrity crowd is full of environmental bleeding hearts, though there’s certainly some truth in that. Malibu, of course, is a city with miles of glorious coastline, and the residents know all too well that plastic straws and other non-biodegradable items often end up on beaches. When swept out to sea, they do irreparable harm to fragile ocean creatures. That’s why Malibu has taken the lead, as it did when it was one of the first California cities to ban plastic supermarket bags. 

When I think of plastic spoons, straws, and stirrers, my mind immediately turns to the “just one word” that a man named McGuire promises young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. The scene is Ben’s coming-home party, where all of his parents’ affluent SoCal friends are gathered to welcome this new college alumnus into adult life. Out by the swimming pool, McGuire intones, like an oracle, the word he’s convinced can be Ben’s Open Sesame into a world of economic satisfaction: Plastics. This immediately became a laugh line, to the point where screenwriter Buck Henry griped that the audience was soon shouting “Plastics!” before Mr. McGuire had even opened his mouth. 

The word “plastics” immediately signified, to the bright young moviegoers who were the first to claim The Graduate as their own, a career based on rampant materialism rather than personal satisfaction. Plastics were exactly what these young graduates did NOT want from their own lives. Like Benjamin Braddock, they hoped their future would be  . . .  different, and they had no wish to be slaves to impulses that were purely capitalistic. What exactly did they want out of life? Peace? Freedom? Love? All of the above? They (or I should rightly say we) weren’t sure, but plastics were nowhere on that list.

But in my research for my new Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, I’ve discovered that in many ways the makers of plastic have had the last laugh. Jeffrey L. Meikle’s scholarly American Plastic: A Cultural History (1995) admits that “to understand both the resonance of The Graduate and instantaneous emergence of ‘plastic’ as a synonym for fake or phony, one must bear in mind the degree to which plastic never escaped the stigma of the second-rate imitation.” But he also chronicles the ways in which plastic, as a strong and versatile material, seems to have taken over the world we live in. (It’s not all negative. Today, in fact, plastic can give us some truly miraculous assets, like the artificial body parts that can be fabricated by 3-D printers.) 

 My favorite article about the role of plastics in American life was published in Time in 1997. A Time journalist visiting a convention of plastics manufacturers discovered that Mr. McGuire’s advice to Ben was fundamentally sound: “Over the past 30 years, the plastics industry has grown faster that the gross national product.” Nor did those in attendance bear the film any ill-will for dissing their profession. In fact, many of them had first looked into plastics after seeing the film. Said one, appreciatively, “The Graduate was a hell of an advertisement for the industry.”

Mr. McGuire tells Ben the facts of (economic) life

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