Life in plastic? It’s fantastic. Today, plastic so ubiquitous so as to be, irrefutably, everywhere. It’s built to last, and curiously resistant to degradation. If you believe the whispered manifestos of the late 20th century, it can even buy anything, with no strings attached. We feed its reactors every minute—a slow nuclear fallout that might continue for a few thousand years. There’s ‘cleaner’ plastic of course, of the biodegradable and recycled varieties, but they don’t amount to more than a drop in an ocean that will soon run dry. For as this intriguing post reminds us, peak oil also means peak plastic. And one day, we might find ourselves mining for post-consumer plastic with the same blood-soaked ferocity with which we mine for conflict diamonds or rare earth.
This resistance to degradation, [Debbie] Chachra argues, is a hidden asset. Millions of tons of petroplastic are buried in landfills, waiting for the day when the cost of excavating them becomes less than the cost of squeezing the last drops oil from the ground. Although we may develop workable alternatives, petroplastic’s killer combo of persistence, moldability, and sterilizability will make it valuable for centuries to come.
The gorgeous images in this post provide an idea of what this might look like. They’re from Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty series interrogating the accumulated industrial detritus of American consumerism.
Chris Jordan, recycling yards in Seattle
As Koert van Mensvoort suggests, the only sensible way to conceive of plastic today is as raw material or resource that has an integral place in the Earth’s ecosystem. Birds, for example, may well evolve with time to be able to ingest and digest plastic with no harm to their insides. For despite its ostensible resistance to biodegradation, plastic does eventually decompose, albeit over a timespan of thousands of years. Keeping this in mind, a sixteen-year old high school student identified microbes that eat plastic in 2009. Produced on a mass scale, these bacteria may well provide solutions to the world’s waste problem. And analogues already exist in nature: a team of students and professors from Yale recently discovered an Amazonian fungus that can subsist entirely on one of the most common plastics, polyutherane.
Chris Jordan, cellphones in Atlanta
And then there’s this.
“Cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene”—Debbie Chachra
As the market for an instagrammed, warmly filtered aesthetic becomes wholly saturated—if it hasn’t already—a shifting to these ‘cool, slick petroplastics doesn’t seem so far fetched. Gourmet string cheese. Boutique linoleum. Heirloom-woven neoprene. Handmade styrofoam, extruded to order on steampunky, repurposed pasta machines. What else?
Chris Jordan, crushed cars in Tacoma