How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us An account of the wonder substance that has become our tarbaby.

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I was the stuffy one; my mom was mod. When we moved from my grandparents’ home into an apartment, she bought red and yellow plastic Parsons tables, a space-age blue stereo on a curvy white stand, and a pair of sticky white go-go boots for each of us. After years in dark rooms filled with stolid brown furniture, all that shiny plastic felt like a burst of optimism. Life took on a little more zing.

It was the late Sixties, after all, and plastic was still an undisputed miracle. We lived in what one magazine called “The Wonderful World of Tupperware,” which also held plastic toys, shatterproof dishes, polyester and pleather and fake suede and fake wood grain and chairs molded to the shape of your bottom.

“The whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself,” philosopher Roland Barthes had announced a decade earlier, delighted by this “transformation of nature.” In the freewheeling euphoria of plastic, he wrote, “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all.”

Real stuff lingered for a while, though. Soggy, disappointing paper straws. Sturdy brown grocery bags I cut up for craft projects. Soda in heavy, rippled green glass bottles; water, still pure(ish), from the tap. All that felt normal. The excitement came with plastic, which was cheap, durable, disposable, cool.

 

•  •  •

 

The revolution had begun with a billiard ball. In 1868, ivory was scarce (too few elephants left to kill), so a desperate New England company offered a $10,000 prize for a suitable substitute. The British had patented Celluloid, a hard, flexible, transparent material no one yet wanted (though it would later give us Hollywood). A young New Yorker acquired the rights and used Celluloid to make billiard balls. Then—why stop?—he made wipe-clean Celluloid collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts for messy Gilded Age eaters; Celluloid dental plates for the old; Celluloid toys for the young; Celluloid imitations of luxe tortoise-shell, ivory, bone, coral, horn, and mother of pearl ornament for women. What elephants remained need not have their ivory tusks ripped from their bodies by poachers. Hawksbill sea turtles need not give up their lives, unwittingly, to become tortoise-shell hair combs.

“The whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself,” philosopher Roland Barthes had announced a decade earlier, delighted by this “transformation of nature.”

What followed Celluloid seemed even better: Bakelite, a 1907 rubber substitute that turned rock hard, glowed with color, and held the curves of Art Deco. Bakelite did contain a pinch of asbestos, but who was counting? Cellophane popped up next, in 1912; acetate in 1927, vinyl in 1928, Plexiglas in 1930, acrylics in 1936, Melmac in 1937, Styrene in 1938, both polyester and nylon in 1940. In 1941, Henry Ford unveiled a plastic car made from soybeans.

Gleefully, Ford whacked the plastic trunk on his personal automobile with an axe, showing off its indestructibility (and his own). Plastic was the future. World War II interrupted his dream by halting automobile production, but it also launched intense research into plastic’s extraordinary possibilities. Postwar, instead of being squeezed from a soybean, the base would come from abundant, easy fossil fuels. It looked like a solution to just about everything—and that should have warned us, though it never does.

 

•  •  •

 

What made plastic the quintessential American material? Even when the goods were manufactured in China or Japan, the medium felt like ours. Umberto Eco, scholar of signs and symbols, decided that the U.S. was a place “where Good, Art, Fairytale, and History, unable to become flesh, must at least become Plastic.” I think of Mickey Mouse’s black plastic ears, David Hockney’s vivid plastic paint, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (a Yoko concert had propped four tape recorders on plastic stands, and it must have felt auspicious).

Industrial manufacturing, Pop Art, Space Age innovation, and our love of cheap novelty were all part of plastic’s ascendancy—but so was domestic frustration. Think of all those pushy housewives holding Tupperware parties, sure their guests would rather burp a lid than another baby.  House Beautiful pronounced plastic “A Way to a Better, More Carefree Life”; other articles touted the ease of “Throwaway Living,” since “disposable items cut down household chores.” Teflon made cleanup a breeze. Melamine “china” preserved dignity—you could hurl it at a spouse without having to humbly sweep up the shards afterward.

The revolution had begun with a billiard ball. In 1868, ivory was scarce (too few elephants left to kill), so a desperate New England company offered a $10,000 prize for a suitable substitute.

In short, plastic lightened chores and scoffed at gravity. Like the abominable Bumble, it bounced. All of us, shaken by a world war, wanted to feel the same resilience.

We also wanted stuff, lots of it. And plastic toys, action figures, souvenirs, and other consumer goods were pouring off the assembly lines. We stuck pink flamingos on our lawns, stretched and prodded Silly Putty, flung Frisbees, swung hula hoops, and trapped our dreams in plastic snow globes.

Today, the walls of St. Louis’s quirky Venice Café are lined with midcentury plastic toys. It is hard not to smile when you see them; these tiny objects brought such great joy. But compared to balsa planes and rag dolls and metal cars, what sort of lifeworld do those plastic toys represent? Tacky throwaway possessions, buckets of them. A childhood that looked indestructible—but could melt in seconds.

Architects shied away from plastic at first, but artists embraced it. Soon Christo would be wrapping naked women, a VW Beetle, a medieval tower in Spoleto, and Paris’s Pont-Neuf in polypropylene. Acrylic paint spattered cheerfully, and Lucite lightened interiors. Life grew more playful, more confidently faux. Art critic Robert Rosenblum found himself installing, in his pricey Manhattan loft, a built-in cabinet surfaced with plastic laminate—a faux marble pattern that would have been gauche at any other time. “This is the age of reproduction,” he announced, “and it’s vulgar and witless to show real materials.”

Andy Warhol had zero desire to do so. He sought out plastic surgery, plastic art, plastic people. “Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic,” he said, exulting in the artifice of L.A. “I want to be plastic.” At his breakthrough multimedia show, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, he screened a film he called Vinyl.

Warhol’s was a consumerist aesthetic: “A Pop person is like a vacuum that eats up everything, he’s made up from what he’s seen. And that’s why people are really becoming plastic; they are just fed things and are formed.”

 

•  •  •

 

By the seventies, the fruit in the fruit bowl was plastic; the flowers in the centerpiece were plastic; lampshades stayed encased in plastic; the food in restaurant display cases was uncanny-valley plastic. Some of this was a class thing: plastic belonged to that tasteless wide swath of middle America, where you could afford just enough to pretend.

But plastic was never as good as what it pretended to be. Plastic forks broke; plastic fabrics stained and yellowed; plastic’s brightness was garish. When celebrated for its own sake, the material could still be cool, but most plastic products were fakes, imitations of finer substances, at first trying too hard to pass and then not even trying, just laying themselves out there as our only option.

Melamine “china” preserved dignity—you could hurl it at a spouse without having to humbly sweep up the shards afterward.

“My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence,” Sally Rooney writes in Beautiful World, Where Are You. Plastic also happened to be, her character adds, “the ugliest substance on earth, a material which when dyed does not take on colour but actually exudes color, in an inimitably ugly way.”

Why did we choose inimitable ugliness?

 

•  •  •

 

The Catholic Church insists that real materials be used in its sacraments. This was spelled out among the reforms of Vatical II, and I admired the fine aesthetic sensibility, but now I think it might have been more than good taste. It might have been a warning about hubris. Real materials have real limits that must be respected.

And so, altars can be wood, but not woodgrain laminate; they can be glass, but not acrylic. The dying will be blessed with oil, not oleo. God will not live in a plastic chalice.

Truth has to stay simple—that, too, could have been the point. “Keep it real,” we urge each other. This is especially hard to do at Christmas, when the world is ablaze with plasticized light and plastic toys are tied up with plastic ribbon and people ski on plastic snow. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote of an impatient Christ, now grown up, climbing down from his bare tree and running away to a place where there are “no pink plastic Christmas trees.”

 

•  •  •

 

To make plastic, you would start by refining natural gas or oil—two other substances that helped us exhaust the Earth—into ethane and propane. Heat them up, “cracking” them into monomers (simple atoms or molecules). Add a catalyst, and the little monomers will bind together into a powdery polymer “fluff.” Push the fluff into an extruder, and it will melt, flow into a pipe, and cool into a long tube shape. Now all you have to do is slice the tube into little pellets, called “nurdles,” and send them around the world to be melted yet again, molded into just about anything. There are so many different kinds of plastic and so many different applications, your head spins. Or bobbles.

The Greeks gave us the word: plastikos, meaning “to form.” “Benign creator!” cried Samuel Johnson. “Let thy plastick hand/Dispose to its own effect.” This soft use lasted through the nineteenth century, with William James remarking “how plastic even the oldest truths…really are,” and Emerson describing the world as “plastic and fluid in the hands of God.”

Once we melted and molded all those synthetic polymers, though, the word “plastic” snapped into place like a Lego piece, and we forgot its organic possibilities. Fluidity and moldability now referred to manufacturing, not God. The irony only dawned later: once hardened, those polymers turn out to be one of the least adaptable materials on the planet.

Useful, though. And they have given us so many more words. The communities of organisms that have found a way to live on floating plastic comprise the “plastisphere.” The animals who assume plastic is food (because why else would there be so much of it?) or who choke in a tangle of plastic six-pack rings or get their downy heads caught inside plastic milk jugs, are called “plasticized” animals. The mass of melted plastic debris that clogs sandy beaches? “Pyroplastic.” The stone formed of plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris? “Plastiglomerate.” An abandoned plastic fishing net that catches marine life in its webbing as it drifts? “A ghost net.”

The Greeks gave us the word: plastikos, meaning “to form.” “Benign creator!” cried Samuel Johnson. “Let thy plastick hand/Dispose to its own effect.”

A crocodile who lives along the Palu River in Indonesia has spent the past five years with a rubber tire around his neck. It constricts the size of prey he can swallow and sets him apart from the other crocs, but he crawls along, adapted to his bulky necklace. We are a lot like him, lugging around all our plastic, reconciled to this weird baggage that constricts us in ways we do not even realize.

 

•  •  •

 

“Plasticity” is almost as old as plastikos, but thanks to modern neuroscience, it glows with hope. William James remarked in 1890 that “organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity,” and we now know he was right. Brains do not reach adulthood and freeze in place. Like plastic, they are light and fast and resilient, and they change with experience. Neurons reorganize after trauma. Unlike melted and fluffed fossil fuels, brains really are adaptable.

Discovering the plasticity of the brain has changed how it feels to be alive, to grow old, to be hurt, to love or hate. We are not hard-wired; our little gray cells are more alive than that, capable of learning, breaking connections, forging new ones, continuing to adapt throughout a long life. We can reinvent ourselves.

Can we, then, reinvent the way we live?

 

•  •  •

 

The crazy part is that we knew. All along, we knew. Why else would that “one word” whispered as the future in 1967’s The Graduate have become an instant meme, five decades before we needed the word “meme”? Why else would audiences have applauded a wonderful life when George Bailey refused to invest in plastic? Or giggled at Donald Duck, The Plastics Inventor, when he tried to melt household waste and build a plastic airplane?

Sure enough, the plane “floats like a feather”—but it melts in water, so the enterprising duck has to crawl onto the wing and frantically reshape it as he speeds through a rain cloud, and then the plane elongates and morphs and turns bright orange and melts into goo and turns into—1944’s necessary happy ending—a parachute.

In the early days, you did not dare wash plastic in hot water, lest it twist or melt, or freeze it, lest it turn brittle and crack. Left in the sun, it oozed oil. Tupperware—the result of experiments with smelly black polyethylene slag—stained with tomatoes and reeked of the onions or strong cheese it stored. Paul Reilly, a member of the U.K.’s Council of Industrial Design, called early plastic products “constipated little objects.”

People used to cry out in dismay—“It’s plastic!”—when they noticed that a bit of a new appliance was no longer made of metal or glass. Exciting as its applications could be, plastic also spelled cheap, ersatz, of inferior quality. And the sudden quantity of inferior junk was unnerving. Once he was safely retired, a DuPont chemist predicted that we would all “perish by being smothered in plastic.”

Is it self-hatred, to embrace with abandon a substance you know to be cheap, tacky, often garish, and entirely synthetic? A substance that, when made into a bag, had to be imprinted with warnings, lest a child think it a toy and suffocate?

Paul Reilly, a member of the U.K.’s Council of Industrial Design, called early plastic products “constipated little objects.”

Plastic was a toy. It was new and shiny and capable of ceaseless improvement—just like us. We ignored all the flaws and dangers, because the stuff took more interesting forms every year, all at our bidding.

We found the possibilities so exciting, we forgot the parachute.

 

•  •  •

 

Said with a shrug: “She’s kind of plastic.” The quickest dis. You know instantly what it means: someone phony and superficial, molded to please but with a hollow interior. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the psych ward’s head nurse has a “terrible cold face, a calm smile stamped out of red plastic.” In Mean Girls, The Plastics are shallow, popular sociopaths.

Today, we use the slur less often, but we switch personae even more easily. In her epilogue to Performance & Modernity, Julia Walker talks about our new interface with technology and all its entanglements, mutability, interactivity, artifice. Humans exist, increasingly, as virtual simulations interacting with other virtual simulations.

We are all plastic now. Warhol would be so pleased.

 

•  •  •

 

When Gunther von Hagens invented plastination, people rushed to donate their bodies. As soon as they died, the corpse would be shot up with formaldehyde, stripped of skin, dehydrated in an acetone bath, melted free of soluble fat, laid in a bath of liquid silicon, and vacuumed, the acetone sucked away and the pressure pulling silicon into every cell of the body. The specimens used in Body World exhibits are as close to imperishable as anybody gets.

Von Hagens, however, is not. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he is near death. He has arranged to have his body plastinated and carefully positioned, one hand outstretched to greet visitors.

 

•  •  •

 

I hunt up clothes that breathe for themselves, but they have plastic buttons. I buy storage containers made of glass, but they have plastic lids. To make amends, I buy a washable Q-tip (a colossal mistake) and deodorant in a paper-wrapped bar, which is like trying to rub a brick under your arm. I carry around a stainless steel straw—to stick in a Starbucks cup that turns out to be lined with a polyethylene plastic nearly impossible to recycle. At home, we eat at a wood kitchen table, its stains and nicks covered with a sunflower design I painted with what I now realize is a liquid plastic.

Do your best, but know this: There is no real escape. It is said that even Queen Elizabeth uses Tupperware. As for packing material, those “little white plastic chips at once soft and repellent to the touch” that float out of reach the minute you open the box, Marge Piercy is sure “they will conquer the world.”

Maybe they already have. By the time plastic lost its novelty, it was ubiquitous. Those flashes of dismay (“It’s plastic!) have given way to resignation. Products are lighter weight now, cheaper to make, and more quickly obsolete. But, hey, we can always buy more.

The Swedes speak of köpskam, the shame of consumption. I feel it, yet it does not stop me. A curious apathy comes over me from time to time, and I am quiet for a while, austere, dejected. And then I start another shopping list. Reforming will make no real difference, I tell myself. We are afloat in plastic, 400 million more tons of the stuff every year. Our cities might as well be plastic models, scaled life-size. Inside the houses, just peek under the sink or in a broom closet, and you will find a plastic bag full of plastic bags. Elizabeth Bradfield wants to know

 

What did we do before

to-go lids?

Things must have just spilled

and spilled.

 

•  •  •

 

Sometimes (and is this a good sign or a portent?) rage crashes through my apathy. The last time someone offered me a plastic bottle of water, I wanted to slap it from his hand and yell, “Four hundred and fifty years! That’s how long this stupid bottle will take to break down in a landfill!”

On a stormy night, driving behind a truck on the highway, my wheels crunch over a random array of plastic objects flown from the bed. I am so disgusted, I accelerate, scared by the rain-slick road but determined to follow the truck off at its exit, point out what it has strewn in its wake, and—what? Demand that the driver go back and pick up every single piece of plastic or…else? I have no recourse. The truck speeds ahead, nonchalantly littering the byways. This must be what it feels like to be impotent.

 

•  •  •

 

When you see someone you love strung up with plastic tubing—sugar water, oxygen, urine, drugs, all flowing in or out—you understand the panic in their eyes. The old-fashioned pails and stainless basins were sloppy, as was spoon-feeding. But this feels more like engineering than care. Lying there, watching people scrub up and suit up and then discard their coverings to be incinerated, the patient knows herself to be repulsive—a cesspool of germs, a vault of toxins. Plastic seals away the filth. Plastic is what serial killers wrap the bodies in.

I once watched our family physician gently probe the infected wound on my mother-in-law’s leg with clean, warm, ungloved fingers. It felt like an act of compassion.

 

•  •  •

 

After grabbing my winter-white totebag with grimy hands, I wince, then relax into guilty relief, remembering how little I paid for it. No way is it leather. Its plasticized surface (leatherette? pleather? the names are suitably awful) will wipe right off. Once home, I slide into sherpa-lined sweatpants, then wince again, thinking of all the microplastic that will escape the next time I wash them, make its way to the ocean, strangle the fish. No Sherpa worth his salt would wear these pants.

What does it do to your psyche, when you continue using stuff that you know is evil and love anyway? Ask anyone who has suffered addiction, I remind myself. Because that is what this is.

 

•  •  •

 

Other addictions fold into this one. About 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are flicked to the ground—or into a lake or stream—every year. There, they leach toxic chemicals—including arsenic—and over the next ten years, their plastic filters will break into bits and travel . . . everywhere. They fall with the rain in the Pyrenees and the Colorado Rockies. Animals see the butts bobbing on sparkling blue waves and take a nibble. Birds use them to upholster their nests, and the fledglings hold open their tiny beaks and take in toxins. In the ground, researchers have found that cigarette butts damage plant life—shrinking white clover’s roots, in one study, by almost 60 percent. Vape instead? Ah, but an e-cig’s entire body is plastic.

Chew gum? The First Nations taught us the fun of chomping on sweetened tree resin. So what did we do? We replaced it with a synthetic gum made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate. That is what you are chewing before you kiss somebody good night. You dispose of your chewed wad discreetly, maybe under the moss of some topiary—where it will sit, intact, for at least five years. Unless it is transferred to the gut of some unsuspecting woodland animal who likes spearmint as much as you do—and must now carry around an indigestible blob of someone else’s nervous pleasure.

 

•  •  •

 

Shame, they say, is dangerous: it reinforces the behavior that caused it, trapping us in a loop. But I do not think this is that complicated. Plastic was just easy. Such a gentle, amusing way to drown.

I once watched our family physician gently probe the infected wound on my mother-in-law’s leg with clean, warm, ungloved fingers. It felt like an act of compassion.

It drowns, too. Some of the eight or so million metric tons of plastic that enters the oceans every year sinks into the muddy depths. Microplastics also get gobbled up, especially by plankton, which then loses its ability to suck in carbon dioxide and give back oxygen. Instead of freshening our air, the ocean, which returns drowned bodies, wrecked ships, and bottled notes to us, is now spitting back our plastic, bubbling it into sea spray so coastal breezes can push it into the air. But we see none of this, noticing only the rainbow of plastic that swirls in calm gyres—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch—or clogs the coastline.

We live in the Age of Plastics—a subset of the Anthropocene, the era in which humans took over and, in not much time at all, plundered the planet. The Age of Plastics is a special sliver, though, because the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic we humans produced left a distinct mark on the fossil record. Examine undisturbed layers of sediment, starting in the 1940s, and you can watch the amount of microplastic in each layer double every fifteen years.

 

•  •  •

 

I settle down (with a glass bottle of ginger ale) to watch The Story of Plastic, a solid, smart documentary by a Washington University alumnus. “Forget throwing plastic bottles in the water—we tossed our cars in there,” the narrator says wryly. A timeline appears, then halts at the seventies: our first crisis of conscience. Unfortunately, we focused on what was strewing the highways—plastic litter—instead of placing limits on plastic manufacturing. Consumer capitalism whips up individual desire, but it also makes individual behavior the first target of reform. Corporations must be encouraged to continue whatever they are doing that is making money.

Now the doc shows a sad pie chart from the World Economic Forum: 40 percent of plastic winding up in a landfill, 32 percent scattered as litter, 14 percent incinerated, 14 percent recycled. I try to extract a little cheer from that final 14 percent, then learn that only 2 percent is effectively recycled, meaning that it is made into products equally useful.

Recycling, like a tragic beauty queen, is the victim of its own popularity. For years, cities and recyclers have felt pressured to accept a ton of plastic they know they cannot recycle. That frees us from guilt, so we can keep buying single-use plastic and scrupulously “recycling” it. After a hurried lunch, I once stood paralyzed at Whole Foods, hesitating between two carefully labeled receptacles, not sure where my fork should go. A passing employee saw my predicament and shrugged: “It all goes in the same place anyway.”

Which, we now know, was China. For years, they let us ship them vast piles of our plastic waste. Then they said enough, stop sending that crap, and we panicked.

Now we are asking our casual American question—“D’you take plastic?”—in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and they are saying yes and often mismanaging the waste, further trashing the environment. But we have washed our hands of it.

 

•  •  •

 

Still, the curtain has been lifted. We know that only a fraction of all plastic gets recycled. So what do I do? Continue to toss it all into my recycling bin anyway. A new version of optimism, I like to think: as soon as they perfect a way to make use of all these other plastics, they will have a stockpile ready and waiting.

Where, in Indonesia? The truth is that I recycle out of a weird mix of helplessness and habit—plus a stubborn insistence on feeling virtuous, even if the virtue is a lie.

In the first ten years of this millennium, we manufactured more plastic than we made in the entire twentieth century. Why? Because fracking made oil and natural gas so cheap. A capitalist answer. Now there is plastic in our water, our air, our food, even our dust. No matter how deep inside a landfill we bury it, the chemicals leach into the groundwater.

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans,” Jacques Cousteau said decades ago, his lip curling in disgust.

“Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest,” added oceanographer Charles Moore. What country generates more plastic trash than any other? Ours. A 2020 study estimated 287 pounds per person, every year. We eat more than five pounds of plastic apiece, every decade—and in a lifetime, about forty-four pounds of the stuff. Why not just eat a seven-year-old boy? He would digest more easily.

Like those Kodachrome photos that faded even faster than the memories, plastic broke its promise. Instead of remaining intact forever, it shreds itself into our bodies.

Slice into my round tummy the way they cut open dead albatrosses, and you will find plastic in both. It laces our salt, floats in our water, leaches from those silky pyramid teabags (a single bag can release 11.6 billion microplastic particles). And if you bottle-feed? That Pampered babe in your arms is sucking in somewhere between 1.5 and 4 million microplastic particles a day. Then there are the nanoplastics, particles small enough to wend their way from the gut into our bloodstream . . .

We are not yet sure of the effects.

We do know that plastic molecules mimic certain hormones, disrupting the endocrine system’s normal functioning. Microplastics can irritate lung tissue, and research links them to chronic inflammation. In water laced with microplastics, marine oysters produced fewer eggs, and their sperm no longer swam at competitive speeds.

Like those Kodachrome photos that faded even faster than the memories, plastic broke its promise. Instead of remaining intact forever, it shreds itself into our bodies.

 

•  •  •

 

When the litter started to pile up, we dared not blame our Plastic. A few folks shunned it, the hippie-dippy sandal wearers, but they were too earnest to be cool, and we mocked them.

That arrogance has dissolved. Many of us are, too late, angry. But multinationals (Unilever, Nestlé) have found a way to placate us: they are excavating garbage dumps and incinerating the plastic into pellets of cheap fuel. They can count the plastic collection as evidence of their recycling effort, then sell the fuel, often to the cement industry, which can brag that it is using less coal.

Plastic burns with a hellish speed and intensity; it is made, after all, of petrochemicals. It makes sense to break it back down into fuel—except that in the process, you release all sorts of harmful substances into the air, including dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer, disrupt hormones, and suppress the immune system. And you have to dispose of the incinerator wastes. And guess where the incinerators are generally located? Communities with low incomes and residents of color.

Another idea that sounds good because we are desperate is chemical recycling, which uses chemicals or heat to break down even the tricky plastics—the black food trays, the colored shampoo bottles, the gooey peanut butter jars people refuse to rinse—without reducing its quality. Except, to bust those polymers into gaseous form, you have to really heat them, sometimes up to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, which requires an inordinate amount of energy. Or, you break them down with toxic chemicals like methanol and ammonia. Either way, you spin off toxic by-products—formaldehyde, ethylene, styrene, the epoxy resins of BPA, vinyl chloride.

There are bright spots. Biological upcycling: bacteria that eat plastic the way we will drink those shakes; yeast microbes that break down the plastic and release fatty acids we can use to make paint, solvent, and industrial lubricants.

Then there are the frankly awful ideas. The bacteria that is turning polymers into edible material, so we can all sip plastic protein shakes. The genetically engineered E. coli bacteria that will transform plastic bottles into vanillin for your next batch of chocolate-chip cookies. We have even returned to what one enthusiast suggested in the sixties: plastic food packaging that we can heat up and eat along with the food.

There are bright spots. Biological upcycling: bacteria that eat plastic the way we will drink those shakes; yeast microbes that break down the plastic and release fatty acids we can use to make paint, solvent, and industrial lubricants. Zero-waste grocery stores that sell food without plastic packaging. Mobile vending machines that dispense washing powder into smart reusable containers. Sophisticated new materials architects want to use, because they allow curves, withstand climate, and save energy. Appliances like the new Arçelik washing machine, which captures microplastics instead of releasing them into the water system.

That list seems a little lame set against billions of tons of plastic waste, no? But real change takes public will. In Europe, you cannot sip your latte through a plastic straw from a foam cup; single-use is over. Here, we take only halfassed and fragmented measures.

In states that require a deposit for plastic bottles, most are collected and recycled. Yet only ten states require the deposit. Why? Because the giants, first among them Coca-Cola, which makes 117 billion plastic bottles a year, opposed bottle bills. Why? Because that brings the bottles home again, shifting some of the recycling burden back on them. Plastic is a hot, hot potato.

 

•  •  •

 

“Made from poly (vinyl chloride) (PVC) plastic. Contrary to ‘sticky-leg syndrome,’ where plasticizer migrates from the PVC and deposits to the surface as a tacky liquid, this doll exhibits a bloom of a fugitive, waxy, white solid on the legs from the mid-thighs to the ankles. . . . ”

This Smithsonian conservation report on a Barbie doll sounds like a medical examiner’s autopsy report. The team used multi-spectral imaging, x-radiography, computed tomography, and infrared spectroscopy to document—so they could halt—this cultural icon’s degradation. Handed a trove of midcentury plastic artifacts, they have been working frenetically to preserve this stuff that promised to last forever.

Scientists and environmentalists are working just as hard to make it dissolve.

 

•  •  •

 

What made us think it would be swell to have a material that would not rot? Our horror of death, I suspect. Eager for immortality, we let ourselves be fooled.

In “Irijay,” Nancy Vieira Couto writes of

 

. . .  running my fingers over plastic beads

of a rosary, or clasping a plastic candle,

or screwing together the two plastic halves

of an applicator. And nothing apprehended.

 

There is a deadening of the world, because so much is lifeless, synthetic, inert. Hold an old wooden rosary, and you will feel the tears, see the darkening where anxiety dampened and tightened someone’s grip. Plastic beads are cool and slick; meaning does not stick.

In his “Sonnet on the Death of the Man Who Invented Plastic Roses,” Peter Meinke wrote that this man “understood neither beauty nor flowers.” Real roses are alive, organic, ephemeral—and that is what makes them precious. Would you throw a plastic rose at the feet of a soprano who had just sung an achingly lovely aria about grief?

We try so hard to fake beauty, just so it will last longer. We miss nature’s point.

 

•  •  •

 

Imagining himself into the mind of an 1890s time traveler, Mark Helprin wrote: “Everything seemed to have grown smooth, to have lost its texture.”

Plastic can be textured—by us. It has no texture of its own. No shape, either. No color, no density. It is protean, ready to mold to our wishes. In American Plastic: A Cultural History, Jeffrey Meikle suggests that “plastic’s potential recalled a traditional faith in the openness of experience to intentional shaping.

We try so hard to fake beauty, just so it will last longer. We miss nature’s point.

“From the early twentieth century onward,” he writes, “plastic has signified greater human control over nature. Its innate formlessness has suggested the outlines of a material world ever more malleable in the face of human desire. At the same time, its proliferation in everyday life has echoed the increasing economic abundance of the American middle-class.”

Half a century after that proliferation, nature shows the scars. Our desires have sickened us. And the middle-class is shrinking.

Optimism that is synthetic will twist and melt.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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