I find myself a pair of cotton shorts the other day at a great price and discover, much to my surprise, that I’m saving the world along with saving myself a few bucks. Or so the card that comes with my shorts would have me believe.

The brand I’ve chosen turns out to be called Natural Elements. The card, a virtuous-looking thing printed on 100 percent recycled paper, sports on its cover a picture of a pine forest (what this has to do with cotton I have no idea) and on the inside a picture of the earth. “One Earth One Chance” the card chants at me. “Clothe yourself in the spirit of adventure. Discover a world of natural forms and earthy colors. Finally, a viable alternative… Natural Elements. It’s a way of life.”

I’ll forgive the hokey adspeak. It’s the environmental claim that distresses me more, the assumption that “natural” ingredients imply environmental good, a “viable alternative” to eco-apocalypse. In fact, for all of their other redeeming features–they’re soft, comfortable, and easily cleaned–my cotton shorts are no more environmentally correct than throwaway plastic cups. Cotton shorts, after all, don’t grow on trees, and cotton production has environmental effects just like any other kind of production; the fact that the final product feels more “natural” than, say, polyester doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for Mother Earth.

Indeed, as synthetic technologies mature and become cleaner, it’s becoming clearer than ever that our continued love affair with the “natural” may well do the world more damage than would a sensible acceptance of synthetic alternatives. As it turns out, we may find a certain environmental salvation in the “one word … just one word” of advice given to the hapless Ben in The Graduate. That word, of course, is “plastics.”

“As toxic waste decomposition technologies and recycling technologies are perfected, the use of synthetic materials will entail far less environmental destruction than the continued production of natural products like paper, wood, and cotton,” Martin Lewis noted several years ago in his book Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. “The future may yet be in plastics. Let us hope that companies like DuPont can create artificial fibers sophisticated enough that we no longer need to deplete the earth’s aquifers, clear its tropical forests, drain its wetlands, and put massive quantities of biocides on all these environments in order to grow the cotton that affluent American consumers consider so wonderfully ‘natural.'”

Though such assertions are virtually heretical to environmentalists of the old school, and seem to fly in the face of the environmental “common sense” that has filled the air for the last decade or two, this argument is increasingly borne out by the facts.

Now, I’m not a plastics freak. I prefer cotton to polyester–though I do have an acrylic sweater that’s pretty nice. I winced when the American Plastics Council launched a series of overly perky TV ads several years back demanding us to “Take Another Look at Plastic.” But they’re right, you know: we should give plastic another look.

Consider: The environmentally correct answer to the supermarket-checkout question “paper or plastic?” is in fact plastic. Plastic grocery bags use two-thirds less material by weight than their paper equivalent and take up less than a tenth of the space in landfills.

And while it’s true that plastic containers don’t biodegrade in landfills, neither does much else. According to University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje, who has examined in detail the fate of our garbage once it leaves the house, very little of what we throw away actually manages to biodegrade–and materials like cardboard and paper take up much more space than plastic. Indeed, because landfills isolate garbage from the oxygen it needs to properly decompose, the anaerobic decomposition that does occur tends to produce air pollution–in the form of methane gas.

In many ways, ironically, plastic’s longevity is an environmental plus, since nonbiodegradable materials are generally easier to recycle than their biodegradable counterparts. And while in the past recycled plastics have been of poor quality, changes in technology have made recycling the material increasingly efficient. As Gregg Easterbrook notes in A Moment on the Earth, plastic recycling is growing faster than any other kind of recycling.

Plastic has other environmental advantages as well: plastic packaging, in addition to taking up less space than paper or cardboard, really does help to keep food fresh longer, avoiding waste from spoilage and reducing the need for preservatives. “Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash,” John Tierney writes in a deconstruction of recycling myths in the New York Times Magazine. “The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale….A typical McDonald’s discards less than two ounces of garbage for each customer served–less than what’s generated by a typical meal at home.” Indeed, Rathje discovered after digging through 14 tons of trash that only 100 pounds of the total was made up of fast-food packaging.

For many social critics over the years, plastic has served as a convenient symbol of all that is wrong with Western civilization–a culture at once wasteful, prefabricated, and just plain tacky. “I sometimes think there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer,” Norman Mailer once remarked, “and it’s plastic.” In one interview, Mailer suggested that plastic (along with another popular villain–television) might push America “much closer to totalitarianism than the FBI or the CIA ever could.” By deadening our minds and bodies, Mailer went on to suggest, plastic drove people to drugs–in a desperate attempt to counteract its “anesthetizing” effect and get their “nerve ends” pinging again.

Mailer’s comments are, one suspects, deliberately hyperbolic; he knows that when he goes on about plastic like that he sounds like something of a nut. And yet, as little as a decade ago, his opinions on the subject were not terribly far from the mainstream. For years, as Stephen Fenichell writes in Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, the most sensitive souls tended to look upon plastic with a shudder, viewing it as little more than “an alien substance foisted upon us by unscrupulous manufacturers with an eye towards cutting corners.” When Doug Heller, the media coordinator for Green Gathering ’96, grasped for a symbol to capture the vapid bankruptcy of American politics, he found one readily at hand: the “balloons, the plastic, the horror” of the Republican and Democratic conventions.

But slowly, very slowly, things are beginning to change, and plastics foes like Heller may find themselves more and more alone. “After decades in the doghouse, plastic has come back with a vengeance,” Fenichell notes. “With remarkable resiliency and pliability appropriate to its protean nature, plastic has cunningly mutated back into our good graces in recent years.”

As Fenichell’s fascinating, if disorderly, history makes clear, our feelings about plastic have undergone dramatic transformations over the last century and a quarter. Fenichell’s volume offers an informal history of the plastic age, from the debut of Parkesine in the 1860s to the stealthy return of polyester “microfiber” to the fashion runways today. The book tells the gory details of plastic’s chemical and social history, chronicling the invention of everything from Bakelite to Teflon, the complex legal battles over the various plastic patents, and the remarkable popular enthusiasm for new plastic products that’s erupted again and again over the years.

From the very beginning, plastic positioned itself as the perfect material–one that could do anything asked of it. “It can be made HARD as IVORY, TRANSPARENT or OPAQUE, of any degree of FLEXIBILITY, and is also WATERPROOF,” an 1862 ad for Parkesine practically bellowed. “It may be made of the most BRILLIANT COLORS, can be used in the SOLID, PLASTIC, or FLUID STATE … it can be spread or worked in a similar manner to INDIA RUBBER, and has stood exposure to the atmosphere for years without change or decomposition.”

And it could. The argument for Parkesine has been the argument for virtually every form of plastic invented since then. Plastic is, after all, plastic in the sense that Plastic Man is plastic–that is, it’s moldable, malleable, endlessly pliable, and everlasting to boot. Because of their astonishing versatility, plastics have seeped ever more subtly into every corner of life. In 1979 the worldwide production of plastics outran that of steel. And at France’s annual Fete du Citron, there are more plastic lemons than there are real ones.

The history of plastics has been a bumpy one. Especially in the early years, the new chemical concoctions didn’t always do exactly what their creators wished. In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt discovered the secrets of celluloid after one of those fortuitous spills that seem to have been endemic in the history of plastic–but his plans to manufacture celluloid billiard balls were thwarted by the material’s tendency to (quite literally) go up in smoke. “No man can play billiards with any real satisfaction if he knows that his billiard balls may explode,” the New York Times wryly noted, “thereby spoiling a promising run and burying the players under the wreck of the table and cues.”

But such bugs were worked out in time, and as new forms of plastic have emerged they’ve often inspired the same kind of enthusiasm tulip bulbs did during the tulip craze in 17th-century Holland, or that Internet-related stocks do today. By the 1920s, Fenichell notes, the Bakelite plastic–introduced a decade earlier–was not only functional, it was fashionable, becoming the “defining medium” for art deco industrial design. “During the twenties,” Fenichell writes, “Bakelite gained a new distinction as the signature material of a new hard-boiled, hard-drinking ‘lost generation,’ the sophisticated urbane set….Bakelite conveyed a smooth-yet-solid surface swank sleekly evocative of the Al Capone era.”

In 1924 Time magazine put “the material of a thousand uses” on its cover, along with its inventor, Leo “Doc” Baekeland. Noting that the material was already used in “fountain pens, billiard balls … castanets [and] radiator caps,” Time suggested that within a few years it might well “be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization.” Time envisioned what the Bakelitized world would look like: “From the time that a man brushed his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray, and falls back on a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes….Books and papers will be set up in Bakelite. People will read Bakeliterature…offer Bakeliturgies for their dead, bring their young into the world in Bakelitters.”

The emergence of cellophane in the 1930s seems to have encouraged an even madder mania. Cellophane was everywhere–referred to in New Yorker cartoons and Cole Porter songs, wrapping everything that could conceivably be wrapped in it. After a much-touted new cellophane package helped to restore the once-dominant Camel cigarettes to their former position in the industry, manufacturers of anything and everything attempted to follow suit. Tires, towels, and even grand pianos all came wrapped in what one manufacturer described as “the glamorous new cellulose sheeting.” There were cellophane bathing suits–anticipating by some 40 years Marabel Morgan’s endorsement of saran-wrap clothing as a kind of marital aid for bored housewives and their husbands. And in the midst of this cellophane mania, as Fenichell points out, “even cellophane arrived from the plant sheathed in itself. ‘To protect it,’ a company spokesman dryly explained, ‘from moisture.'”

One Cornell professor was so taken with the material he began experimentally feeding it to students as a food substitute–a strategy that he hoped would allow “fat people desiring to reduce to ingest bulk without calories.” He claimed there were no ill effects, and you can believe him if you want. Who needs food if you can just eat the packaging? (And who needs Olestra when you’ve got cellophane?)

A decade later, nylon inspired a similar outburst of madness. Nylon, originally known only as Fiber 66, made its debut in 1938, finding its first use as an artificial bristle for toothbrushes. (“CANNOT SHED! CANNOT GROW SOGGY! CANNOT FAIL TO CLEAN!”) But it wasn’t until after the war that nylon mania truly took hold. After years of wartime shortages that deprived women of their treasured stockings, near riots erupted in 1946 at stores offering the then-revolutionary nylon stocking. As Fenichell notes, N day came on Valentine’s Day, 1946. A week earlier, an estimated 30,000 customers descended upon Gimbel’s department store in New York City, where 26,000 pairs of the stockings were to be found. “Women risk life and limb in bitter battle over nylons,” a Georgia newspaper breathlessly reported. The New Yorker noted that some brazen nylon-hungry women were donning clever disguises in order to get hold of more than one pair.

But as plastic became cheaper, more resilient, and more ubiquitous in the postwar years, it began to lose some of its cachet as well. Sure, ads still extolled the virtues of the plastic age: “Won’t you feel life is good when you own a kitchen where all the surfaces are jewel-bright, clean-at-a-wipe Formica Laminated Plastic,” one housewife cooed in a 1953 magazine ad.

Increasingly, though, plastic came to mean cheap, and cheap began to mean tacky–so much so that when filmmaker John Waters sought a single word to sum up the tasteless excess of white-trash America, the word he chose was “polyester.” And it goes without saying that pink flamingos are made of plastic.

During the years in which plastic lost its sophisticated sheen, its environmental dangers became apparent as well. Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle set the stage for what was to come: revelations of the cancer-causing effects of plastics production and use, of the harmful dioxins that polyvinyl chloride (that’s vinyl) released into the air. Throwaway plastic litter choked sea turtles and ducks. The production of Styrofoam cups released ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons into the air. And, as anyone who’s ever accidentally set a plastic bag aflame knows all too well, burning plastic releases a horrible, noxious smoke–a kind of smoke that’s so foul it doesn’t take a PhD in chemistry to know it’s bad for you.

Still, the doomsday vision of plastic has turned out to be as shortsighted as the earlier uncritical celebrations of the stuff. In recent years the industry has cleaned itself up, and new forms of plastics have emerged that are much more eco-friendly than their predecessors. “Plastic now extrudes from the tube in ecologically fashionable fibers, in dissolvable films, in recyclable bottles, and even in purportedly green ‘bioplastics,'” Fenichell reports–and some of these “artificial” materials are made of such natural ingredients as soybeans and potatoes. And, as Fenichell says, “even die-hard naturalists are proud to wear” clothing made from a new breed of ecologically correct fibers, like Patagonia’s EcoSpun, a fleecy fiber made from recycled pop bottles. Indeed, in some quarters, reusable plastic cups–strapped to an appropriately disheveled backpack–have become a sign of ecological consciousness.

Some purists may object, but the point by now should be clear: what seems the most natural to us is not always what is best for nature. Technologically savvy environmentalists have come to realize that the old environmental dogmas–suspicious of the future, enraptured with a mythic past, all too redolent of old-fashioned Luddism–will no longer do: with our population nudging toward six billion, the future of our planet depends not on Luddite fantasia but on our careful and imaginative use of technologies from plastics manufacturing to biotechnology. Onward we march, striding toward the future, covering ourselves in EcoSpun, plastic cups in hand.

Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century by Stephen Fenichell, HarperBusiness, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jim Flynn.