Plas­tic's Gor­dian knot


Can hu­man­ity de­feat its deadly ad­dic­tion of plas­tic?

STELLA MCCART­NEY is an English fash­ion de­signer known for her sup­port of an­i­mal rights. Her la­bel as­sid­u­ously es­chews fur or leather. This June, she an­nounced a line of lux­ury goods fash­ioned out of yarn spun from plas­tic garbage gleaned from the oceans. “To take some­thing that is de­struc­tive and turn it into some­thing that’s sexy and cool, how can that not be lux­ury?” Stella told The New York Times.

Far away from the glitz of Stella’s fash­ion uni­verse, last Septem­ber, a zeal­ous 19-year-old en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist named Jawahar took his own life by jump­ing into a canal in the tem­ple town of Than­javur. He left be­hind a video record­ing of his sui­cide note: “I am sac­ri­fic­ing my life in the hope that it will trig­ger se­ri­ous con­cern about plas­tic use in In­dia. Since all of my peace­ful means of protest failed, I’m forced to choose sui­cide...”

Two con­trast­ing re­ac­tions to the mod­ern pan­demic of plas­tic pol­lu­tion, one fight­ing, the other fu­ne­real, but both sig­nify the Faus­tian na­ture of our toxic love af­fair with plas­tic. Ob­scene ly cheap, mag­nif­i­cently pro­tean, and ad­dic­tive ly con­ve­nient, it has be­come the pre­em­i­nent“lu­bri­cant of global is at ion ”— we now pro­duce 20 times more plas­tic than 50 years ago, which is ex­pected to dou­ble in the next 20 years.

In an ev­ery­day sense, even though we live in a vir­tual sea of plas­tic, we be­come con­scious of it only when it is vir­tu­ally im­mor­tal, ugly dis­cards stare at us mor­tals from open sew­ers, land­fills, rivers, and beaches. But it has a darker un­der­belly, glimpsed only oc­ca­sion­ally through pic­tures and videos of poor work­ers re­cy­cling plas­tic waste in hor­ren­dous work­ing con­di­tions. More wor­ry­ingly, the mer­chants of doubt hired by the plas­tic in­dus­try have mud­died the case against plas­tic’s health haz­ards so much that most of us con­tinue to pa­tro­n­ise it feck­lessly.

McCart­ney seems distressed more by the planet-wide spillover of plas­tic trash, which, ac­cord­ing to a re­cently re­leased global re­port on plas­tics, is threat­en­ing a “near per­ma­nent con­tam­i­na­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment”. It is so far-flung that now it dis­graces some of the re­motest parts of the planet like the Arc­tic and Pa­cific is­lands. Pic­ture this: At least 8 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic finds its way into the ocean each year—put an­other way, this is the same as dump­ing the con­tents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. If unchecked, this may jump to four per minute by 2050. Or di­gest this: the world buys a mil­lion plas­tic bot­tles every minute.

The trou­ble with plas­tic is that it does not biode­grade, which means no mi­crobe has yet de­vel­oped an ap­petite for it, which in turn means it can swirl around in the oceans un­changed for hun­dreds of years. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that there is over 150 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic waste in the ocean to­day. If business con­tin­ues as usual,

Even as sci­ence un­masks the sin­is­ter side of plas­tic, we are be­com­ing ever more de­pen­dent on it. Is there a way out of this deadly ad­dic­tion?

they sus­pect by 2050, plas­tic would lit­er­ally out­weigh fish in the ocean. They fear that some of it may have al­ready sneaked into the hu­man food chain.

While it may not biode­grade, plas­tic is not to­tally in­ert ei­ther, as orig­i­nally sup­posed. There is enough ev­i­dence now to sug­gest that many dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals, notably ph­tha­lates and bisphe­nol A, do es­cape at high tem­per­a­tures, and can foul up the body’s hor­monal har­mony, caus­ing all man­ner of disor­ders, such as in­fer­til­ity, birth de­fects, heart dis­ease, al­ler­gies, and even can­cers. That's a pretty se­ri­ous in­dict­ment.

How­ever, plas­tic did not al­ways get such a bad press. In the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, a large num­ber of an­i­mals were be­ing mur­dered in the wild for the sake of lux­ury prod­ucts (such as bil­liards balls from ele­phant ivory and combs from the shells of hawks­bill tur­tles). In 1870, when John Wesley Hy­att patented the process for mak­ing cel­lu­loid, the first plas­tic, he used the fol­low­ing sales spiel: “As pe­tro­leum came to the re­lief of the whale, so has cel­lu­loid given the ele­phant, the tor­toise, and the coral in­sect a respite in their na­tive haunts.”

Equally fas­ci­nat­ingly, the shape-shift­ing prow­ess of cel­lu­loid al­lowed de­sign­ers to fab­ri­cate make-be­lieve repli­cas of lux­ury wares that were so cheap that even the poor could af­ford them. The phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of cel­lu­loid goaded the cre­ation of many more types of plas­tic be­gin­ning with Bake­lite, the first plas­tic syn­the­sised in a lab. Be­fore long, we had a slew of plas­tics with unique prop­er­ties—Sty­ro­foam, pvc, poly­car­bon­ate, pet, Ny­lon, Kevlar, and Te­flon, to name a few. As Su­san Freinkel writes in her ab­sorb­ing Plas­tic: A Toxic Love Story: “Plas­tics, so cheaply and eas­ily pro­duced, of­fered sal­va­tion from the hap­haz­ard and un­even dis­tri­bu­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources that had made some na­tions wealthy, left oth­ers im­pov­er­ished, and trig­gered count­less dev­as­tat­ing wars. Plas­tics promised a ma­te­rial utopia, avail­able to all.”

The irony is that even as we have be­come more aware of plas­tic’s per­ils, it seems nearly im­pos­si­ble to es­cape it. In 2013, an av­er­age Amer­i­can con­sumed 109 kg of plas­tic, and a Chi­nese 45 kg. In­dia came late to the glob­al­i­sa­tion band­wagon, so it still con­sumes a rel­a­tively mod­est 9.7 kg per per­son, but, grow­ing at 10 per cent per year, it is catch­ing up fast. No sur­prise then that, ac­cord­ing to At­lanta-based Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, at least 80 per cent of Amer­i­cans now carry mea­sur­able traces of plas­tic in their bod­ies. As some­one re­marked omi­nously, we have all be­come a lit­tle plas­tic now.

Clearly, there are no easy ex­its out of this labyrinth. At most, in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties may de­cide to ban cer­tain kinds of plas­tics from their lives, like toys or mi­crowave­able plas­tic. Or, they may force the in­dus­try to re­duce the use of haz­ardous chem­i­cals, as they did with vinyl chlo­ride in the US. But th­ese are mere drops in the ocean com­pared to the enor­mity of the prob­lem.

The kRe­duce, Re­use, Re­cy­cley phi­los­o­phy of waste man­age­ment has clearly not worked. Zero waste ex­per­i­ments while laud­able have at best been episodic and parochial. The re­use ap­proach, which un­til the 1950s was still the gov­ern­ing aes­thet­ics of con­sump­tion, may yet make a dent. For in­stance, French con­glom­er­ate bic alone sells 5 mil­lion dis­pos­able lighters a day, not to men­tion mil­lions more made in China. Reusable sy­ringes may not be a good idea, but there is no rea­son we can’t go back to the days of the recharge­able lighter.

Re­cy­cling, seem­ingly a win-win strat­egy for both business and en­vi­ron­ment, still ac­counts for less than 10 per cent of dis­carded plas­tic world­wide. A small frac­tion of the rest is in­cin­er­ated (12 per cent) but the bulk (79 per cent) is ei­ther land­filled or finds its way into the oceans. Be­sides, there are se­ri­ous ques­tions about the haz­ardous work­ing con­di­tions in re­cy­cling fac­to­ries, most of them lo­cated in poor quar­ters of the de­vel­op­ing world.

In a bid to rein­car­nate the old dis­cred­ited plas­tic in a new pack­ag­ing, last Jan­uary the Ellen Macarthur Foun­da­tion, UK, in part­ner­ship with chem­i­cal in­dus­try gi­ants re­leased a re­port ti­tled The New Plas­tics Econ­omy, Re­think­ing the Fu­ture of Plas­tics. It rec­om­mends three rad­i­cal depar­tures from the usual: one, make all plas­tics re­cy­clable; two, plug all pos­si­ble leaks into the en­vi­ron­ment; and, lastly, re­place pe­tro­leum-de­rived plas­tic raw ma­te­rial with nat­u­ral ones.

In­ter­est­ing pro­posal, but some might ar­gue that it con­ve­niently ig­nores the ever-ex­pand­ing ele­phant in the room: the all-per­va­sive dis­pos­able cul­ture that, as the Amer­i­can cul­tural his­to­rian Jef­frey Meikle put it, makes peo­ple feel good about ac­quir­ing things but also at the same time put lit­tle value on them so as “to en­cour­age their dis­place­ment, their dis­posal, their quick and to­tal con­sump­tion.”

Even as the hy­dra of plas­tic con­tin­ues to spread its ten­ta­cles, there is no say­ing how and when will this quixotic plan be put into action. Mean­while, some op­ti­mists are putting their faith in the newly dis­cov­ered cater­pil­lar that eats plas­tic. But we all know who the real, very hun­gry cater­pil­lar is.

This monthly sec­tion will ex­plore the tan­gled web of mod­ern ideas about sci­ence and en­vi­ron­ment across space and time



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