American PetroTopia

An Intimate History of Plastics

Aeon Magazine



Recent Publications

Time Bombing the Future — on Teflon, the bomb, & their fluorocarbon helpmates (Aeon Magazine | January 2019)

  • Bibliography, featuring sources on the history of Teflon, fluorocarbons, PFASs, PFOA & the Manhattan Project

American Beauties — Stories on the Plastic Bag (Topic | August 2018)

What The Stone Said (Orion Magazine | Summer 2018)

Everything Is Going To Have To Be Put BackA Letter to America on Plastic (Terrain | June 2018)

How The Benzene Tree Polluted the World (The Atlantic | October 2017)

  • Bibliography, featuring sources on the history of PCBs, organic chemistry & the organic chemical industry

On PollutionAn interview-essay with Caspar Henderson. (Five Books | September 2017)

The 55-Gallon Drum, An Object Lesson (The Atlantic | November 2016)

  • Bibliography, featuring sources on the history of the 55-gallon drum, toxic waste and the chemical industry

American Petro-topia — An Intimate History of Plastic (Aeon Magazine | March 2015)

  • Bibliography, featuring sources on the social, environmental history of mass plastics & plastic pollution

When The Raspberries Come (Brain, Child | August 2014)

The Homes We Drove Past (Full Grown People | October 2014 )

On What We Bury (ISLE | Special Edition on Climate Change | Winter 2014)


Photo credit: Emily Belz

Photo credit: Emily Belz

About Rebecca

Rebecca Altman is a writer and sociologist. Her work explores the social history of chemistry, plastics, pollution and environmental legacy— what we pass from one generation to the next. Recent essays have been published by The Atlantic, Aeon Magazine, Orion MagazineTerrainBrain, Childand ISLE

She is represented by Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates and is at work on a manuscript— an intimate history of plastics.

Rebecca holds a PhD in environmental sociology from Brown University, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a national think-tank. With SEHN, she has worked on projects from the rights of future generations to a livable planet to the perpetual care of communities affected by chronic contamination. She has taught courses on environmental health and justice for the Community Health Program at Tufts University, and speaks on topics ranging from plastics to legacy contaminants and creative nonfiction. Her research on biomonitoring, body burden(s), the environmental health movement, and toxic exposure has been published in such journals as The American Journal of Public Health, Environmental Health Perspectives, and the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Originally from New Jersey, Rebecca now lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband, their two sons and her in-laws.

America's Plastic Legacy  |  AK Rockefeller  via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

America's Plastic Legacy | AK Rockefeller via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

American Petrotopia

Aeon Magazine (2015)

"The daughter of a plastics manufacturer assesses the toxics that get passed from one generation to another, in her family and yours. First published in 2015, this story, like petrochemistry, stays with you." —Longreads.com
"Make(s) plastic achingly personal." —Toxic Legacies

"The way Altman’s essay tentacles in many directions is a simulacrum of the subtle pervasiveness of plastic itself and the ways in which it permeates our lives. It’s around us, in us, of us... It’s a complicated piece that has left me with a lot to think about..." —Amanda Giracca for Vela 


"We must be more plastic— willing to adapt as changing environmental conditions press us."

TEDxSanFrancisco 2017

The Legacy of Plastics (2017)


Herbst Theater, San Francisco | 10.10.2017

Watch Rebecca's TEDx talk here.

*Thanks to Kate Orff, Justin Hofman, Max Liboiron/CLEAR, Five Films, All Things Bakelite, and Chelsea Rochman & colleagues for permission to feature their maps, art, images, data and footage, and to Igor Celikovic, for helping to construct additional slides.

American Beauties 

A photo essay and cultural history of the plastic bag

(Topic 2018, Issue 14: Earth, Wind and Fire) — Featuring the work of urban landscape photographer, Jan Staller.

bag in tree.JPG

"The life of a plastic bag is really an endless series of entanglements."

American Beauties (Topic 2018)


Interview with Midday on WNYC

"The Real Problem with Plastic"

(July 2018)

Photo: Rebecca Altman

Photo: Rebecca Altman

The Benzene Tree

The Atlantic (2017)

The organic compounds that enabled industrialization have unintended, long-lasting consequences for the planet’s life.

Coal products tree from the Semet-Solvay pamphlet “Products of Coal" (National Archives / Courtesy of  Adam Romero )

Coal products tree from the Semet-Solvay pamphlet “Products of Coal" (National Archives / Courtesy of Adam Romero)

Semet-Solvay’s ‘coal products tree’ rooted the company’s offerings in the nation’s bituminous coal beds. Along boughs of ammonia, tar, and benzene bloomed hundreds of products—Saccharin! Explosives! Mothballs! Perfume!—all promising mastery over nature’s unyielding cycles, its wild swarms and infestations, its off-putting odors and inconvenient secretions.
— The Atlantic, 2017
Image courtesy of  Alexandra Loske . Photography by Clive Boursnell.

Image courtesy of Alexandra Loske. Photography by Clive Boursnell.


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