Queen of the Modern World
a short story by Elizabeth Quigley
(c) 2019 All Rights Reserved
AUTHOR I.D. -- Elizabeth Quigley has a master's degree in materials engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA, and she uses her materials knowledge to show people a different way of thinking about materials. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Jameson.
I remember when scientists had finally traced where all the modern diseases had come from -- asthma, food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, cancers, etc. The source was so ubiquitous that it took scientists almost a hundred years to realize all the connections between it and the slew of diseases as well as its role in climate change.
It was a celebrated thing when first invented way back when, and once it was invented, you couldn’t get away from it. It was as common as the water we drink, and we literally drank it.
Companies spent billions of dollars to discredit the scientists who found the connection between it and human health as well as its role in climate change. But in the end, once Europe had banned it, all of it, everyone else followed suit.
“We’re banning it for the sake of our future children. They deserve both a planet and the health to enjoy it,” they had said when they banned it. They, meaning the government officials of all governments, big and small.
I remember the chaos that followed the government bans as we
had to get rid of all the things made with it over the course of a year. Anyone caught in violation
of the ban was thrown into jail to protect others.
Farmers got special permission to still use their
equipment even though it contained the banned substance because they were categorized under
fundamental food practices and by providing essential services, got an exemption. Municipalities
couldn’t deal with the sudden change in supply and for a while it was a regular occurrence to
have waste management employees thrown into jail for trying to cheat the system. In actuality,
we were asking ordinary humans to be superheroes.
They also banned the name. They feared that because it used to be everywhere and we
relied on it so much, having even the word would cause people to want it back again. If brought
back, they were afraid of another 100 years going by poisoning people and having riots and
protests and chaos all over again, but they were especially afraid of losing power, so they
branded themselves as for the people, for the environment and took the easy way out – a
complete ban without thought to the consequences.
However, some good came of the ban since getting rid of it was singlehandedly the most important factor in reversing climate change.
We had to stop using cars and planes of course, and due to that, carbon emissions reduced
dramatically, which helped to further reverse rising global temperatures. After eliminating most
other modes of transportation, the rail system boomed since trains just use metal and became the
only efficient way to travel long distances. Having less people travelling in general allowed
renewable energy sources to easily handle our energy demands.
With all these huge environmental gains, governments realized that a few big companies were truly responsible for the climate change crisis due to the products they produced, and these governments sued those companies.
This was another big blow to these companies who were already bleeding money
from having to restructure their whole organizations to make their products without the banned
substance. Eliminating it brought both good and bad consequences, but what bothers me the most
is how poorly thought out the bans were. The bans were enacted suddenly due to fear of it but I
don’t think anyone realized just how hard it would be to get rid of it all. I understand why it was
banned and why it was necessary but….it seemed like such a harsh punishment for something so
unassuming and so easily able to shape itself to serve your needs. There were so many other
ways to deal with it that didn’t lead to an all-out ban.
I still say the word sometimes, especially as I fall asleep. I like the way it rolls off my
tongue and how comforting it is. Plastic. The former queen of the modern world. Plastic. It
changed everything and now it seems like such an outlandish fairytale to think that there was
once a time when it was everywhere. Plastic. It was like the weeping angels in Dr. Who: it killed
when we weren’t looking and we weren’t looking for a long, long time. But when we saw it, we
saw it everywhere. Plastic. It had formed islands in the oceans, found its way into marine
creatures and humans, and emitted deadly carbon emissions from the millions of tons produced
every year. People said it had to go. It was too cheap, too versatile, too enticing like smelling
cinnamon in the air, and anticipating the sweet, luscious bite of a snickerdoodle, only to find
yourself standing at the stove looking at a pot of water with cinnamon sticks in it and feeling
empty and used inside because it wasn’t the thing you were promised. When plastic first became
ubiquitous in the 1930s and 1940s, we were promised that this was the next greatest material,
ready to solve all our problems. We saved the elephants with plastic by replacing our appetite for
ivory combs with plastic combs. Food became cheaper because it now was sold in plastic.
Everyone could look glamorous in cheap but fashionable nylon and polyester mass-produced
clothing. But time after time of buying plastic products and hoping this new, shiny plastic thing
would make everything better only led to disappointment as we were left wanting more and
wanting something that would last. Only it did last, just not in the form we wanted. The dirty
truth that the governments still don’t tell is that plastic is still with us, compacted into cubes,
buried in the remotest parts of the world, and unable to degrade for the next thousand years
because of its chemical structure. It had held so much hope and promise but we were left feeling
empty and used as plastic could never satisfy us and instead poisoned us.
But I don’t think of plastic that way.
Plastic had just been misused, mishandled. It had debuted on the world stage before it
was ready and gotten a bad rap because it enabled our unhealthy consumerism. But I miss
plastic. I miss the way it smelled when I would walk along the production lines, monitoring how
the latest plastic bottle design was behaving in our production facilities. Although not
recommended at all, I could tell what kind of plastic was being used just by the smell that drifted
off the conveyor belts as the plastic was being shaped into bottles. Epoxy was what I sought on
days when I needed some comfort because it smells like a batch of freshly made shortbread
cookies. Polyethylenes reminded me of birthdays because it smells like candles and brought back
memories of blowing candles out on the cake. Polypropylene had a unique smell that people
either liked or hated – burnt sugar. Polyvinyl chloride was a nasty beast of a plastic. If you were
unfortunate enough to smell it, you never forgot the acrid, foul odor from the chlorine molecules
infiltrating your nose, clinging to the hairs on the inside, and lingering for hours. I should say
that I used to be a packaging engineer for a beverage company when plastic was still used. I was
one of the lucky ones who was able to stay on because I had good technical communication
skills, but the department was virtually wiped out when plastic was banned. They had to rapidly
shift to glass and metal to stay afloat, and materials engineers who had spent years studying
plastic were more expensive to retrain than hiring new metal and ceramic people fresh out of
It’s hard to retrain materials engineers because plastics, metals, and ceramics are each
worlds of their own and don’t take kindly to those who flippantly cross between them. Metals are
very seductive, drawing their people in by shiny appearances and smooth, mesmerizing surfaces.
Ceramic people always seemed wacky to me because they were rough around the edges with a
fiery temper but if you stick through all of that, you found a treasure hiding inside - just like the
how glasses are processed: small, irregular glass particles in powder form that are still gritty to
the touch but when melted down at high temperatures in fiery furnaces, could be shaped into
beautiful, exquisite structures. And then polymers, the scientific name for plastic. You never
knew what shape they would take, never knew what color or texture they could be until you
tried. They were always full of surprises and always difficult to tell what exactly they are just by
looking at them. But after the ban, my job only consists of translating the technobabble of the
metal and ceramic engineers to the marketing and sales people. I should feel lucky that my
background in materials engineering combined with my good communication skills was the
perfect combination to stay at my company when so many others were laid off, but it just isn’t
fun anymore. It’s all talk of grain boundaries, age hardening, microstructures, crystal structures,
surface energy, doping, and more and translating those terms to tell non-technical people where
the fault lines of the product are, how different properties could be created for a certain product,
and how to tweak those properties in one direction or the other. It’s an important and meaningful
job but if those terms make you fall asleep, I don’t do much better.
I should tell you that you can say polymers just fine within a scientific context.
Government officials understood that the science community still needed a way to refer to
plastics, but they restricted research to focus on cleanup efforts of polymers, how to reverse its
effects on the environment, and any study that showed how awful polymers were in any way.
Needless to say, metal and ceramic research exploded. What was tricky for the government
though was how to prevent people from secretly making plastics by buying the precursor
substances. They understood that the chemical additives in polymers to make different types
were necessary to keep around because they often served other purposes in metals and ceramics,
but they faced the challenge of people buying them for illicit purposes and making huge profits,
disguising their cheap plastic products as some metal-ceramic hybrid. You now had to apply for
permission to buy certain chemicals for personal or commercial use and state the purpose and
reasoning behind why these specific chemicals were needed.
I initially just wanted to make some small, plastic items like fun ice cube molds or food
storage containers for personal use. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it or use it outside my
house. I just missed the feel of plastic and seeing it in my life. So much so that I came up with
this crazy scheme to build a personal greenhouse for my ananas comosus (pineapples), which I
didn’t actually have. I used technobabble to say that these chemical additives to the glass panes
of my greenhouse would help block green light and increase the intensity of purple light so that
the light would match wavelength emission and absorption spectra to make my ananas comosus
plants take on a more golden hue and become a “golden apple” instead of staying a normal,
unadorned “pine-apple.” The idea behind this was to control the type of light absorbed by my
ananas comosus so that golden light would be reflected by the fruit making it more golden than
any other ananas comosus. I admit this application was a bit tongue-and-cheeky since I was
essentially trying to make pineapples into golden apples, which doesn’t make sense because
pineapples aren’t apples at all. But, for once, it was fun to write a bunch of technobabble so the
government officials would be confused and their eyes would glaze over and they would just
Which they did pretty quickly, and when the chemicals arrived, I immediately opened up
the bottle with ethylene powder (a precursor to polyethylene), reached in with one hand, and let
the powder fall through my fingers, a silky rain of white. I knew I was risking burning the top
layer of my skin off by touching the powder or ingesting some of it and having a horrible fit of
vomiting before dying, but if you ever stuck your hand in a bag of flour, you could only describe
the feeling as delicious, like the pure sense of pleasure you get from eating a spoonful of creamy
vanilla panna cotta. That’s what this ethylene powder felt like. The smell, the feel, the sight of
even this precursor powder was enough to excite me. There was an endless road of possibilities
ahead of me as I could make these polymers into anything I wanted – bottles, bowls, utensils,
boxes, bags, crates, trays, lids, food wrap…. – I held my breath for a good ten seconds to try to
restrain myself. Remember: plastic is still banned; chemicals were obtained legally but with
illegal intent; nobody cares about plastic. I was back in reality and back to only making ice cube
molds and food containers.
Once I made them, I didn’t actually use them for a while. They sat above my fireplace
and I admired them all the time in that place of honor. They were too pretty and I didn’t want to
ruin them - like how in any home, there’s a set of wedding china displayed in a cabinet that’s
never been used because it’s too valuable. I know everyone else used to give plastic two seconds
worth of thought when we still had it – cut open the plastic packaging and throw it
away……And while I wouldn’t have kept that plastic either, it deserved to be more than just
single-use junk. I mean if companies just valued plastic more than its use as a cheap vehicle for
encouraging more consumer consumption of stuff, so many products would have been designed
with more quality…..
Her epiphany rivaled that of Henri Poincare’s epiphany as he stepped on that fateful bus
to go on a geological excursion. She stepped into the room and walked toward the fireplace.
Today was the day she was going to finally use the plastic items she made. Her heart was
beating a little fast and she tried to push away the irrational images that these plastic items
would just melt when she first used them. She held her breath as she reached towards the food
container, her hand trembling slightly. Then the neighbor’s Welsh Corgi barked at a stupid
squirrel in their side yard and she instinctively flinched in fruitless fear, briefly terrified that she
had been caught. And that flinch caused her to knock the food container off the mantel and in yet
a second moment of terror, she worthlessly worried that it would hit the ground and shatter in so
many tiny pieces. And in that second moment of terror, her epiphany came.
Maybe, just maybe, my love for plastics could change the world. Or maybe I watched too
many Disney princess movies where love changed beasts into boys, awakened a whole kingdom,
or brought people back to life, and I unknowingly embraced the idea that love could change the
world. But maybe, just maybe, if I could use my obsessiveness to invent a new kind of plastic
and get people to value it to just a fraction of a degree that I do, then they would care more about
plastic and keep it around.
No one was worried about polluting the planet with your
grandmother’s ceramic dishware. What if this new kind of plastic could not only be reshapeable
but could also heal itself? What if there were competitions for most creative reuses of plastics?
What if I could once again be excited about where my future is going? It would be a longshot,
but maybe, just maybe, I could tweak shape memory polymers, polymers that can “remember”
multiple shapes, to withstand typical oven temperatures, while balancing flexibility with
mechanical strength, and develop a coating to self-heal the polymer in case it got scratched or
nicked like how chromium works in stainless steel.
Right, sorry, too much technobabble. Let me
put it this way. Imagine buying a gallon of milk and when you finished it, heating the container
in your oven to reshape it into a vase or a pencil box or some book ends or some bakeware.
Wouldn’t that be incredible? There could be houses everywhere with plastic things that they
shaped and created, sitting on their fireplace mantel or other places of honor.
I abruptly sat down in a chair, feeling heavy with the flood of thoughts rushing into my
head. This was it. This was the answer, the way to get plastic back, but not like before. Better
than before because plastic would no longer be thrown away. It would be reused again and again,
passed down to future generations.
Her hands slowly brought the polyethylene terephthalate food storage container to her
face as she closed her eyes. A faint scent of wax danced through her nose and she smiled,
dreaming of the day when she would find out what this new kind of plastic would smell like.
Disclaimer: the author does NOT recommend smelling or burning plastic since it can produce toxic fumes.
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