The Age of Plastic

Plastic coffee cup lid photographed by the author off Fairy Bower Beach.
Plastic coffee cup lid photographed by the author off Fairy Bower Beach.

“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far”
– The Buggles, Video Killed the Radio Star

Beneath the waters of Fairy Bower Beach, my attention is captured by a gently pulsating, white orb. It hovers just above the sandy bottom. The presence of this object elicits a strange sense of disquiet in me. What is it? My curiosity must be appeased and I cautiously swim down towards the circular entity. The refracted light of the noonday sun limns an explanation for me.

A plastic coffee cup lid. Yet another piece of plastic trash that has ended up in the ocean, or in this specific stretch of water, a protected marine reserve. Convenient and wide ranging, synthetic plastic objects such as this cup lid, are now so common, their very presence has become invisible, like water to fish or air to everyone else. Plastic bags, drink bottles, food containers, straws and balloons. Discarded plastic is everywhere. Almost every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated). A deliberate exaggeration? Perhaps the scope of the plastic waste problem is only as bad as the report I recently read that “billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in the oceans making up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.” Well, 40 percent isn’t so bad. That still leaves plenty of pristine places for humans and marine life to enjoy. If the plastic just keeps to its patch, all will be well. Won’t it?

Upon close inspection I can see tiny bite marks around the perimeter of the lid. Perhaps the silvery fish just beyond the lid have ingested some of the plastic already? What will happen to the fish? What of the larger organisms that will eat the fish, such as seabirds?

“As plastic debris floats in the seawater, it absorbs dangerous pollutants like PCBs, DDT and PAH. These chemicals are highly toxic and have a wide range of chronic effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations. The concentration of PCBs in plastics floating in the ocean has been documented as 100,000 to 1 million times that of surrounding waters. When animals eat these plastic pieces, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain.” –

Why is nobody doing anything about this unfolding holocaust? Our top scientific bodies such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have been relegated to delivering statistical eulogies for the biosphere. The CSIRO is warning 99 per cent of the world’s seabird species will be ingesting plastic by 2050 if current marine pollution trends continue.

“We found toothbrushes, doll arms, cigarette lighters, the little ties on the bottoms of balloons – pretty much anything that can fit inside a seabird, we’ve found in a seabird.”  – Dr Chris Wilcox, CSIRO

Contractions in my diaphragm remind me that I am still beneath the waves. I have let my rising panic distract me to my immediate need, namely air. I grab the lid for future disposal and break the surface. The color returns to my pallid complexion and I cast my gaze back towards the shore. Fit, well-groomed joggers are cruising up and down the Pacific Parade, a walkway that follows the contours of the beach. Blonde and tanned young women are sitting with their expensive strollers and children at the outdoor tables of the Bower Restaurant, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The sight of other people calms me down a little.

I begin the short swim back to shore, coffee cup lid in hand. I am in the water, but my mind is in the kitchen back home. My wife is trying to shake me out of my stupor and wake me up to our plastic reality. “Tim, our recycling bin is always full,” she tells me.

“Well, that’s not so bad is it? At least we’re recycling,” I soothe her.

“I keep thinking it mustn’t be environmentally friendly to use that much plastic,” she says.

“You know, I don’t think it’s really that …”—I begin to minimise her concern but she cuts me off—“We take petrochemicals from the earth, make a bottle, put milk into it for a week and then we’re left with a plastic artefact. I know it can be recycled, but how much greenhouse emissions are created in the manufacturing and the recycling of the plastic?”

“Well, at least we’re recycling,” I repeat as an automatic, unthinking mantra. “Tim, how many recycled plastic garden chairs do we buy?” She asks. I shrug limply.

For the following two weeks after that conversation, rather than place our plastics in the recycling bin, my wife hides all the plastic items we buy during this time in the storeroom. I self-righteously thought that our family of four led a simplistic, low environmental footprint lifestyle. The pile of artefacts that she presents to me is devastating. The fog of brainwashing that surrounds me dissipates instantly.

My family's 'modest' plastic haul after only two weeks. Photograph by the author.
My family’s ‘modest’ plastic haul after only two weeks. Photograph by the author.

Now I’m feeling angry and used. These plastic little fuckers have lulled us to sleep with the religion of recycling. Plastics—toys, food packaging, grocery bags, all the ephemera of modern life—replicate like Gremlins that are exposed to water. Recycling was just to make us feel better about their ever expanding presence.

My wife, a warrior at heart, has a new enemy to focus her attention on, and it is legion. People such as her will form the foundation of the underground plastic resistance. Do they know what they’re up against though?

Plastics are objects of high molecular mass. They are comprised of large molecules or polymers that produce unique physical properties, such as malleability or shapeability. What is forgotten though is that we ourselves are made of biopolymers, such as DNA and proteins. The synthetic polymers are merely mimicking the many repeating building blocks of life itself. Without the biopolymer, the synthetic polymer would not have come into existence. Unfortunately, the synthetic polymer thinks it is organic; ultimately it will enter our bloodstream and make itself at home while it causes havoc.

Before humans and before plastics, blue-green algae covered our ancient seas. The algae would use chlorophyll to turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into food. As the algae ate, they expelled oxygen. The oxygen rusted metals, turned noxious ammonia and methane to nitrogen and carbon dioxide and formed an ozone layer in the upper atmosphere which screened out harmful cosmic rays. As humans, we do not grasp that the algae that created the atmosphere necessary for our survival actually devastated all life forms before them (except bacteria).  As humans, we have swept most life before us into the bin marked ‘extinction’. We throw away enough plastic each year to circle the earth four times. These plastics that are in the process of supplanting the remaining life on Earth will pay us equally little regard.

The mundane plastic coffee cup lid in my hand is no mere piece of trash, it is a mandala for the very strangeness of existence. As humans, we are part of the fabric of the cosmos. Just as you will find evil in other parts of the universe, you will also find it here on Earth. Innovative as ever, the people of Earth have synthesised their conquerors, rather than wait for invasion. White, plastic Stormtroopers do not hold us hostage at gunpoint, rather it is the convenient utility of their presence that makes them unassailable. These invaders are ubiquitous.

The next time you purchase coffee from your favorite cafe, spare a thought for the poor paper cup. It may seem organic and natural, as it is formed from the fibres of pulp derived from plants. However, it cannot be recycled. This is because the cup has been infected with an invasive, synthetic polymer, a macromolecule that provides protection against the coffee. Only the polystyrene lid can be recycled. Neither fully organic, nor fully synthetic, we are all paper cups now. Flesh and blood hosts for an inorganic, mercilessly replicating process that is claiming this planet and its inhabitants for itself.

Welcome to the Age of Plastic.

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