In the spirit of eternal renewal, on this first day of spring I thought I’d talk about plastics. Infinitely adaptable, modern plastics are integral to modern life more than almost any other material. Plastics are the very stuff of modernity. Take away the excessive packaging, the unnecessary plastic bags, the plastic drink bottles and even the plastic baby diapers (none of which will ever really leave us, long after we have stopped producing and using them), we would still have a life based on some kind of plastic.
What is one of the best ways to know we are watching a film about old-timey times, or to make light of a backward culture? Everything is made or being done with wood, metal, horn, stone. No plastics.
A 17th-century definition of plastic describes something that is “capable of shaping or molding,” from Latin plastics, and from Greek plastikos “able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding.” Our human inventiveness has demanded nothing less than materials which can be shaped to our demands. It has only been during the last fifty years that the term ‘plastic’ has come to mean ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ in a perjorative sense.
We used to produce plastics that were based on natural materials we could mold. Horn, and later hard rubber. But, like all natural things, these have the tendency to break, to deteriorate, to lose their form.
So we adapted, and made better plastics. And now here we are, with a vast array of plastics based mainly on polyethylene, a material that is made from one of our other favorite elements of modernity, petroleum. Not only do we have plastics that do whatever we want them to, we also have them forever because even when are finished with them, they are not finished with us. We have mountains of plastic trash on land, vast , island gyres of plastics in the oceans, plastic molecules in our water and in our food.
It is impossible to think away plastics, no matter their immense downstream costs. At an annual production rate of 80 million metric tons (2008), plastics are big business, and they make big business possible wherever they are used.
Still: We can cut down our production and consumption, even if that process tends to come up against our stony stubbornness as humans rather than our plastic adaptability. We can find new materials to mold to our needs, ones that are lasting but also fall into their respective components after a reasonable amount of time has passed.
So, on this vernal equinox of 2013, I salute our ongoing ability to renew, to mold and adapt our expectations, to grow and find our way ahead even after a long, dark winter.
Plastics Are Forever website
TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered – Plastic Eating Bacteria
Mother Jones Magazine article – Biodegradable Plastics
Addicted to Plastic (documentary preview)