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Plastic Crap
By Phil West

There are handcuffs hanging from the inside of my car.

No, I don't drive a 1978 Camaro that cranks Bad Company and Kiss from its car stereo at stoplights. I drive an unassuming gray Volkswagen Jetta with a booster seat in the back. The handcuffs are plastic, and are hanging from the handle on the door next to the booster seat. My three-year-old son put them there. The handcuffs are part of a package my father-in-law picked up for him at the dollar store. The package is, and this is really just too good to make up, a Homeland Security Kit.

The Homeland Security Kit also features a plastic police badge, some giant '70s-styled plastic-framed sunglasses that scream not-so-undercover undercover cop, and a plastic gun that shoots suction cup darts. One evening, upon coming home from my part-time teaching gig, my son shot me in the face with one of the plastic darts, presumably another episode in a Worldwide Make-Believe War on Terror, with me in the role of the stealth Al-Qaeda operative.

I, of course, was horrified. I was hoping to avoid the whole boys-with-guns rite of passage for at least a few more years, but when your father-in-law is a Marine who fought in World War II and Korea, that's probably too much to ask for.

And, perhaps more significantly, I was also hoping to not add to the mountain of plastic crap piling up in my son's room, but in this day and age, it's unavoidable.

We have a menagerie of plastic animals and a plastic natural history museum's worth of plastic dinosaurs. We recently acquired two light sabers over the holidays, and I see us moving to a point on the timeline where my son will use his $15 Target-bought talking Yoda light saber to break the dollar-store light saber knockoff, dubbed a "light sword" because they couldn't get the necessary copyright clearances from Lucasfilms. We have several plastic infant-sized riding vehicles that our son has outgrown but can't bear for us to donate to charity. There are also toy cars and bats and bath toys, all fashioned from molds that originated overseas and will eventually end up clogging an unmistakably American landfill.

Every time we buy a McDonald's Happy Meal, which my son would have for every meal if he could, we become the proud new owners of yet another piece of plastic crap. There's usually some insidious movie marketing behind whatever treasure we pull from the bottom of the bag, and though we've judiciously thrown some of them out within hours of receiving them, some of them end up at the bottom of plastic toy bins underneath plastic items we've actually purchased. From the exhausted eye of a parent who has spent hours picking up a toddler's room, the individual toys merge together into one indistinguishable tangled mass of plastic. It has the resilience of a hydra: pull one piece out of the mix, and several pieces magically appear in its place. Or, at least, that's how it seems.

I can't imagine that I'm alone in all this. Spend enough time in this great country of ours, and it'll happen to you too. Having a small child accelerates the intimacy with plastic, but the love affair happens to all of us.

A quick visit to the American Plastics Council website tells you more than you have probably ever need to know about how plastic came into your life. In 1862, Alexander Parkes debuted a moldable form of cellulose at that year's Great International Exhibition in London, and it was christened Parkesine. But Parkesine does not roll effortlessly off the tongue, so Parkesine begat celluloid, begat Bakelite, begat vinyl, begat polyethylene -- eras in plastic strata somewhat analogous to Jurassic and Mesozoic and all the other dinosaur ages that bore the countless species of nigh-impossible names that my son, who is perhaps a budding paleontologist (assuming the rock and roll career doesn't pan out), is perfectly capable of rattling off.

And really, how did we come so far without plastic? It manages to be all around us without us ever really seeing how it is made. It pervades every aspect of our day-to-day: the snooze button we slap on the alarm clock, the toothbrush, parts of the car, numerous items at work, on workout equipment at the gym. Avoid anything plastic in your life, and you will be avoiding lots and lots of life.

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