Plastic, our liberator and gravedigger

(ORDO NEWS) — American writer and journalist Janet Cooperman in The Common Reader shares her thoughts on what plastic has become for mankind and what are the best ways to get rid of it.

I was old-fashioned, and my mother was fashion. When she and I moved out of my grandparents’ house into our own apartment, she bought red and yellow plastic tables, a blue space-themed stereo with a curved white stand, and a pair of white go-go boots for each of us.

After years spent in gloomy rooms with dull brown furniture, this shiny plastic acted like a embodied burst of optimism for us. It felt the energy of life.

It was the end of the sixties, and plastic was still perceived as a miracle. We existed in an amazing world, with plastic toys, shatterproof plates, polyesters, faux leather and suede, faux woodgrain textures, and buttock-shaped chairs.

“In plastic, you can recreate the whole world, and even life itself,” said the French philosopher Roland Barthes a decade earlier, delighted with this “transformation of nature.” Being in the euphoria of plastic, he wrote that from now on “the hierarchy of substances is canceled – one of them replaces all the others.”

The revolution began with a billiard ball. In 1868, when ivory was in short supply (there were too few elephants left on the planet), a desperate New England company offered a $10,000 reward for a suitable replacement for the valuable material.

The British had recently patented celluloid, a hard, flexible, transparent material that no one needed at the time (although it later gave Hollywood to the world). A young man from New York acquired a patent for it and used it to make billiard balls.

Then – do not stop there! – he produced non-marking celluloid collars, cuffs and shirt-fronts for the sloppy gluttons of the Gilded Age, celluloid dentures for the elderly, celluloid toys for babies, celluloid imitations of luxurious tortoise shell, ivory, corals.

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Celluloid toys, France, 1950s

What followed celluloid seemed even cooler: in 1907, a shellac substitute was invented, Bakelite, which hardened like stone, shone in different colors, and retained all the Art Deco curves.

Cellophane appeared in 1912; acetate in 1927, vinyl in 1928, plexiglass in 1930, acrylic in 1936, melmac in 1937, styrene in 1938, polyester and nylon in 1940 . And in 1941, Henry Ford introduced a plastic car made from soybeans.

Ford gleefully slammed his ax into the plastic body of his own car, demonstrating its durability. Plastic was the material of the future.

The World War prevented Ford from realizing his dream, the production of automobiles stopped, but it also marked the beginning of intensive research into the outstanding possibilities of plastics.

After the Second World War, instead of soybeans, the basis for plastic will be abundant and affordable fossil fuels. It seemed to solve almost all problems, which should have alerted us, although it never does.

By the seventies, fruit in a fruit bowl was plastic; the flowers in the center of the table were plastic; the food samples in restaurant windows were creepy plastic crafts. But the plastic was not as good as it seemed.

Plastic forks broke; plastic fabrics got dirty and turned yellow; the brightness of the plastic was too deliberate.

By itself, it still had value, but most of the products made from it were fakes, imitations of more refined materials. Plastic at first tried to be like them, and then didn’t even try, just presented itself as the only possible option.

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Plastic spoons illuminated and shot through a polarizing filter

“My theory is that people lost their sense of beauty in 1976 when plastic became the most common material in existence,” writes Sally Rooney in Beautiful World, Where Are You.

Plastic also turned out to be, as one of the characters in the novel adds, “the ugliest substance on earth, a material that does not acquire color when dyed, but expels it, and in the ugliest way.”

The manufacture of plastics begins with the processing of natural gas or oil to produce ethane and propane, which must then be heated and “broken down” into monomers (simple atoms or molecules). Add a catalyst to bind the small monomers into powdered polymer fluff.

Place the fluff in an extruder where it melts, then flows out and cools into long tubes. Now it remains to cut the tubes into small pellets and send them to factories around the world to be melted down again and turned into anything. There are so many types of plastic and so many uses for them that it makes your head spin.

When Gunther von Hagens invented plastination , people began to line up to give him their bodies. Immediately after death, the corpses were filled with formaldehyde, skinned, dehydrated in an acetone bath, fat was dissolved, placed in a bath of liquid silicone, the acetone was vacuumed out, and silicone was pumped into each cell of the body under pressure.

The samples shown at the Body World exhibitions are as close to incorruptible as possible.

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Human and plastic sculptures by Gunther von Hagens

However, von Hagens himself is not. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and is close to death. Hagens ordered that his body be plastinated as well, giving him a pose with a raised hand to greet visitors.

I’m on the hunt for breathable clothing, but it has plastic buttons. I buy glass food containers, but they have plastic lids.

To make amends a little, I buy a washable Q-tip and deodorant in a paper case that scrapes underarm skin like a brick. I also carry a stainless steel straw with me to stick into a Starbucks cup, which turns out to be coated with polyethylene, which is almost impossible to recycle.

At home we dine at the wooden kitchen table; all the blemishes and dents on it are masked by a sunflower-shaped pattern, which I painted with what I now understand is liquid plastic.

Do your best, but know that there is no escape from plastic. Even Queen Elizabeth is said to use Tupperware plastic products.

Sometimes rage breaks through my apathy. The last time someone offered me a plastic water bottle, I wanted to knock it out of my hand and yell, “Four hundred and fifty! For four hundred and fifty years this idiotic bottle will decompose in a landfill!”

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Garden sculptures from used plastic bottles

On a stormy night, I’m driving down the highway behind a truck. Every now and then some plastic objects crunch under the wheels, falling out of the body. The crunch is so nasty that I pick up speed, despite the slippery road from the rain, deciding to catch up with the truck, to show what he scattered.

So, what is next? Demand that the driver come back and pick up every piece or what? I have no choice. The truck rushes forward, continuing to litter the country roads.

Gripping my blond grocery bag with dirty hands, I shudder, but immediately relax, remembering how cheap I bought it.

This is not leather, its plasticized surface can be easily wiped off. When I get home, I change into Sherpa (faux fur)-lined sweatpants and shudder again, thinking about the microplastic particles that will rip off the pants in the next wash, fall into the ocean and clog the gills of some fish. No self-respecting Sherpa would wear pants like that.

What happens to the psyche when you realize that your favorite things are harming someone? Ask those who have suffered some kind of addiction about it, I tell myself. Because that’s what she is.

About another addiction. Every year, about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts end up in soil, lakes and streams. They release toxic substances, including arsenic. Within ten years, plastic cigarette filters break into pieces and spread around the planet. It rains in the Pyrenees and the Rocky Mountains.

Marine animals swallow cigarette butts bobbing on sparkling blue waves. Birds use them to decorate their nests, chicks open their tiny beaks and absorb toxins. Cigarette butts are also harmful to plants – one study showed that because of them, the roots of white clover, for example, are reduced by almost 60 percent.

Switch to vapes? Alas, the body of the electronic cigarette is entirely plastic. Chewing gum? Once upon a time, Canadian Indians taught us to gnaw on sweetened tree resin.

And what did we do? We replaced it with a synthetic resin made from butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum ether, polyethylene, polyisobutylene and polyvinyl acetate. You spit this chewed ball under a roadside bush, where it will lie unchanged for at least five years.

Unless, of course, it gets into the intestines of some animal that also loves mint and will carry an indigestible piece of someone else’s pleasure.

Some of the approximately 8 million tons of plastic that enters the ocean every year sinks to the depths. Microplastics are also absorbed, primarily by plankton, which loses the ability to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Instead of freshening the air, the ocean that brings back drowned bodies, wrecked ships, and bottled messages is now spitting out our plastic, turning it into weightless dust so that coastal breezes can carry it through the air.

But we don’t see any of that, except for the plastic that spins in huge gyres – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch – or litters the coastline.

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Juvenile fish and plastic debris, Indonesia

We live in the Plastic Age – the period of the Anthropocene, that is, the era when people seized all power for themselves and plundered the entire planet in a short time.

But the Plastic Age is a special era, because the 8.3 billion tons of human-produced plastic left a distinct mark on the fossil record. Consider intact sediment layers dating back to the 1940s and you will see that the amount of microplastics in these layers is doubling every 15 years.

Which country produces the most plastic waste? USA. A 2020 study estimated this at 130 kilograms per person per year. For ten years, an American eats more than 2 kilograms of plastic, for life – about 20 kilograms. We do not yet know all the possible consequences of this.

Cut open my stomach the way you cut open the carcasses of dead albatrosses, and in both cases you will find plastic. It mixes with our salt, floats in our water, and leaches out of pyramid tea bags (one tea bag can be the source of 11.6 billion microplastics).

Are you bottle feeding your baby? This naughty baby in your arms sucks up between 1.5 million and 4 million microplastic particles a day. And there is also nanoplastics, particles so small that they can penetrate from the intestines into our bloodstream.

We know that plastic molecules mimic certain hormones, disrupting the functioning of the endocrine system. Microplastics can irritate lung tissue and research has linked them to chronic lung disease. In water laced with microplastics, sea oysters produce fewer eggs, and their spermatozoa slow down their speed.

The sad statistics of the World Economic Forum: 40 percent of plastic ends up in landfills, 32 percent is scattered as garbage, 14 percent is incinerated, 14 percent is recycled. I try to enjoy that 14 percent even a little bit, but I find out that only 2 percent are effectively recycled (that is, turned into useful goods).

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ncinerator (waste-to-energy plant; waste incineration plant), Höchst industrial park, Hesse, Germany. Possibly the largest waste incineration plant in Germany (capacity about 675 thousand tons per year)

Multinational corporations (Unilever, Nestlé) are digging up landfills and burning plastic to make cheap fuel. They can sell this fuel, for example, to cement plants, which end up using less coal.

Plastic burns with hellish speed and intensity, because it consists of petroleum products. This releases harmful substances into the air, including dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer, disrupt hormones and suppress the immune system. So it is necessary to dispose of the waste from incineration plants.

Another way is chemical processing. Chemicals and heat destroy even the most “difficult” plastic – food trays, colored shampoo bottles, sticky peanut butter jars that housewives do not want to wash.

However, to convert these polymers into a gaseous form, they must be heated strongly, up to 1000 degrees Celsius, which requires a lot of energy.

You can destroy them with toxic substances such as methanol and ammonia. In any case, toxic by-products are released – formaldehyde, ethylene, styrene, epoxy resins containing bisphenol A, vinyl chloride.

There are frankly frightening ideas. Bacteria convert polymers into edible mass, and we all start drinking protein shakes made of plastic.

Genetically engineered E. coli bacteria turn plastic bottles into vanillin to produce your favorite chocolate chip cookies. So we are back to what one enthusiast suggested in the 60s: make plastic food packaging that can be heated and eaten with food.

But there are also interesting proposals. Bacteria that eat plastic like we would drink those plastic cocktails; yeast microbes that break down plastic to release fatty acids that can be used in the production of paints, solvents and industrial lubricants.

Zero-waste grocers selling goods without plastic packaging. Mobile vending machines that dispense washing powder into reusable containers. New appliances such as the Arçelik washing machine that trap microplastics instead of releasing them down the drain.

We produced more plastics in the first ten years of our millennium than in the entire 20th century. Why? Because the method of hydraulic fracturing greatly reduced the cost of oil and gas production.

This is the capitalist answer. Now plastic is found in water, air, food, and even dust. And no matter how deep we bury plastic trash, the chemicals from it will seep into the groundwater.

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Plastic is everywhere: a young man in Africa with a plastic beer crate

“Water and air, the two main media on which life depends, have become global garbage cans,” Jacques-Yves Cousteau said decades ago. “Only we humans produce waste that nature cannot digest,” adds oceanographer Charles Moore.

One of the crocodiles on the Palu River in Indonesia has been living with a rubber tire around his neck for the past five years. The tire does not allow him to swallow too large prey and thus unfavorably distinguishes him from his relatives, but he still crawls, somehow adapting to his bulky necklace.

We are like this crocodile, carrying all our plastic with us, resigned to this strange baggage, and we don’t even realize how tightly it holds our throats. One DuPont chemist predicted in his happy retirement that we would all “die suffocated in plastic.”


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