Metal pumps conjured a chthonic power. A new era dawned when the joints of the earth were made to give up their prehistoric fat. Modernity plumbed those depths, and found the past a black decay, so it harnessed the subterranean darkness for its satanic mills. Soon, venerable petroleum was transformed into the perfect vessel to render life soft, malleable, massively reproducible and disposable: to render life as plastic.
Virginia Wolfe wrote that in the winter of 1910, human nature changed. She was referring to aesthetic modernism, and therefore to modern production in the context of new technological capacities. Change has only accelerated since then, and one of its major causes has been the rise of plastic. Polymers—long repeating chains of molecule groups, the stuff of life from the walls of cells to insect carapaces and DNA itself—were found to abound in long-buried crude oil. Broken down and rearranged, they became durable and protean. Easy to make, easy to mould—but difficult to break down.
Landfills and the oceans became storage depots for the long centuries this new material would take to decompose. In the meantime, micro-plastics made it into our food and air, having been detected in human lungs and blood. We now know “most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals.” It seems somehow fitting that man’s desire to make life soft and easy should function to feminise the species (in terms of an artificial, parodic femininity, to be sure). Publishing in the Environ Health Perspect, Chun Z. Yang and colleagues found that:
Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable estrogenic activity (EA).
This was true even for those plastics lacking the chemicals most frequently identified as oestrogen-mimicking, such as Bisphenol A (BPA). Indeed, “in some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.”
A significant discovery in this area concerned the effect of phthalates, a group of chemicals commonly used to increase plastic durability. It was initially found that phthalates in the organism of female laboratory rats impacted the genitalia of their male offspring. Dr. Shanna Swan, environmental and reproductive epidemiologist and professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, has since shown that the same is true for humans:
I took a whole population of pregnant women and I got their urine measured—their phthalates … so then I had the problem of what to measure in the kids because nobody had made this translation from an animal genital developmental system to a human [one] … we developed this system … for measuring all the things that you measure in a rat. We measured it in our children. And we showed—and this was big news when it came out—that the mother’s phthalate [levels] did alter the genitals of the boys. So that was the first evidence.
If her findings are accurate, they present a dire situation. During an interview with The Guardian, she discussed the trend represented by the above:
It is serious. If you follow the curve from the 2017 sperm-decline meta-analysis, it predicts that by 2045 we will have a median sperm count of zero. It is speculative to extrapolate, but there is also no evidence that it is tapering off. This means that most couples may have to use assisted reproduction.
By way of solution, she suggested that
the chemical industry must start producing chemicals that can be used in everyday products that are non-hormonally active … substitution … where one harmful chemical is replaced by another untested one, which then turns out to have the same risks … must also stop … And we need to test the chemicals we are currently using—and not just at high doses and not just one at a time,
Further recommending that
people of reproductive age … eat unprocessed foods … don’t use Teflon or anything coated and don’t microwave in plastic. For personal care and household products use a minimum of simple products and try to avoid those that are scented; phthalates are added to hold scent. The non-profit Environmental Working Group has free consumer guides that give information about specific products.
Such a predicament is dire, but a solution has emerged from the minutest of sources, one able to address the ills of mass production. Scientists at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have conducted research “suggesting that the earth microbiome’s potential for plastic degradation is already evolving as a response to the rise in environmental pollution.” In the University’s press release on the topic, we read that “some of the locations that contained the highest amounts” of “plastic-degrading enzymes” were “highly polluted areas.” Jan Zrimec, one of the study’s authors, commented that the researchers “did not expect to find such a large number of them across so many different microbes and environmental habitats. This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue.”
Wolfgang Zimmermann at the Leipzig University in Germany summarised the situation in 2017:
In recent years, a number of microbial enzymes capable of modifying or degrading recalcitrant synthetic polymers have been identified. They are emerging as candidates for the development of biocatalytic plastic recycling processes, by which valuable raw materials can be recovered in an environmentally sustainable way.
We may also cite the MIX-UP project, drawing European and Chinese researchers in this area together.
But it is the 2016 discovery of a new bacterium strain by researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology that has had the most impact recently, as this bacterium can use plastic as its principal or exclusive food source. Write the researchers: “we isolated a novel bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, that is able to use Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as its major energy and carbon source.” PET is a common polymer used in all sorts of materials, from clothing to liquid and food packaging.
In 2018, a team at the University of Portsmouth modelled the relevant enzyme in order to understand how it functions:
We have characterized the 3D structure of a newly discovered enzyme that can digest highly crystalline PET, the primary material used in the manufacture of single-use plastic beverage bottles, in some clothing, and in carpets.
They then altered it in such a way as to increase its ability to break down PET even further:
We engineer this enzyme for improved PET degradation capacity and further demonstrate that it can also degrade an important PET replacement … providing new opportunities for biobased plastics recycling.
The Center for Enzyme Innovation is now working on further altering this enzyme to render it more efficient, which would allow for breaking down plastics at an industrial scale. It has already succeeded in greatly increasing the rate of plastic degradation. Other initiatives are also producing results in this area. A team at the University of Texas recently published findings concerning a synthetic enzyme that can break plastic down in a matter of hours.
Of course, these technologies won’t eliminate microplastics overnight, even if new enzymes were deployed in landfills across the world and fleets of ships began collecting plastic from the oceans en masse. Neither should we ignore the impact plastic packaging and contact with related chemicals may have on us, regardless of their slow, microplastic-producing breakdown. Furthermore, these new, synthetic enzymes could have their own unforeseen consequences, and should not become a permanent, large-scale feature of the world economy. It is more reasonable to use them in tandem with an overall reduction of plastic production.
Humanity’s very recent and very much ongoing plastic saga suggests several romantic conclusions. The ubiquity of plastic (which in itself can be used appropriately), so adaptable, so readily able to emulate other materials, is analogous to postmodernity’s pursuit of the wholly adaptable, perfectly interchangeable individual: “liberated” from the past; “self-determining.”
Mass production and mass disposability replaces fabrication and craftsmanship with “productivity,” “artefacts” with “objects,” desacralizing our role in the world so that we are no longer nature’s stewards, turning us from homo faber, “man the maker,” to mere producers and consumers. The very process that allows us to produce volumetric amounts of “stuff” in an array of colours and shapes, is precisely the process which also reduces our ability to reproduce ourselves. Just as, culturally, consumerism has made gender a purchasable identity available to individuals as self-determining market-agents, also tying us to family-postponing careers, so too the technologies that enable mass consumerism have produced dangerous materials that reduce sexual differentiation and fertility.
And now, nature has given us a remarkable lifeline. Materialist reductionism views her as chaotic matter, randomly assembled into biological organisms by blind chance—a conception which is at the root of our modern desacralization of the world, our willingness to mass produce and mass dispose. As Heidegger saw, modernity came to see nature as a mere resource, a “standing in reserve,” devoid of patterns and beauty worth preserving and shepherding. Instead, although fallen, nature is still the body of that Wisdom which was with the Lord (Proverbs 8).
The consequences of our overindulgence in plastic production and use reminds us that, from the depths of life, from the bounty available to us, so aptly represented by that vast reservoir hidden in the earth—crude oil—we may do great things, obtain a great boon. But if we pursue it vainly, it may well turn against us.
Plasticity—the malleability of the world—is not in itself harmful. Indeed, we are meant to alter our surroundings. But when we lose our desire for stable forms, for permanent anchors, we produce a culture of constant flux and constant waste, of excessive plasticity, until the very biosphere begins to suffer.
Moving forward, poetically, the bacterium to whom we owe this weapon against a plastic-menace of our own making would seem to recommend that we return production to a smaller-scale. A scale at which communities can better serve themselves and their neighbours, the domestic weaver and craftsman might more easily interface with the marketplace, and local cultural forms (including traditionally feminine activities) might be revalorized. A scale at which the everyday object can recover its aura.
The lesson that we should scale-down is consistent with other trends as well. We may cite social anomie, the need to produce medical equipment domestically during the COVID-19 pandemic, the current energy supply crisis, the general fragility of global supply chains and the dangers of hegemonic power large-scale producers can exert on countries that depend on their goods.
This does not at all entail a rejection of technology, only a sense of appropriate usage, of proportion between technology and activity: a putting of human flourishing and a prior vision of the good first, to which any technological innovation and the prosperity accrued through large-scale productivity must be rigorously subordinated.