Falling in love with microplastic
Real Housewives of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
You already know: plastic is everywhere.
It’s the 2020s, every week brings a new story about plastic pollution. The familiar litany: Scientists discover microplastics in rainwater falling in the Rocky Mountains. A vessel descending to the deepest part of the ocean finds a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Researchers in Italy find microplastics in 75% of mothers’ breastmilk. A study reveals that we each consume roughly a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. And so on, and so on.
We talk about plastic getting into the environment, but that’s no longer true. In the 21st century, plastic is our environment. There’s no way to separate out plastic when we’re talking about our world. At this stage, ‘microplastic’ is a new component of seawater.
Right now, as you read this, you’ve got plastic on you. The buttons on your clothes, your spectacle frames, the aglets on your shoelaces, as well as the device you’re reading this on. But more than that, there’s plastic in you, fragments and hairs of plastic swimming in your digestive system and bloodstream. The things we hold end up inside us.
You’ve heard this story before. We tell it often, each time with the same emotional beats and the same moral. But is there another way to tell it?
First of all, let’s recap - how do we end up with plastic inside us?
Here’s the short version: Plastics are made of small molecules called ‘monomers’ fastened together in a long molecule known as a ‘polymer’ (‘many monomers’). To make polymers, hydrocarbon molecules are extracted from crude oil, gas and coal, then fastened together in chains through a process called polymerization.
There are many different kinds of plastic, categorised according to the structure of the monomers that create them. There’s polystyrene (crumbly packing material), polyvinylchloride/PVC (credit cards), polyethylene (plastic bottles), polyamide (nylon stockings, toothbrushes and umbrellas), epoxy resin (strong glue), cellulose (sticky tape), melamine (plastic crockery), and many others.
In the process of creation, polymers are mixed with other elements - colorants, plasticizers and stabilizers - which have their own behaviours, mimicking hormones and giving off endocrine-disrupting gases. The air around plastics is vibrant with chemical activity. On the molecular level, it’s an exciting time to be alive.
Here’s another thing we all know: plastic erodes. Sunlight makes it brittle, friction from wind, water and sand fragments it. Eventually, it degrades to a fine, jagged dust thinner than a human hair.
Every piece of plastic we hold in our hand wants to become dust - and it will. Your plastic water bottle, your toy truck, the keys on your keyboard, the insulation in your wall, the tyres on your car, it will all become dust that never goes away.
That microscopic dust makes its way into the environment. It washes into the ocean, evaporates into clouds - and then, eventually, some of it makes its way into us. We inhale it in the form of dust particles. We drink it in tapwater. We absorb it through our skin. We swallow it when we eat fish or other animals. It circulates in our digestive systems and in our blood. And it preys on our mind. Once we learn about it, we can never quite forget it.
Plastics today seem ubiquitous, but they’re nothing compared to what they will be in decades to come. The industry is still growing rapidly, and the movement against single-use plastics is still in its early stages. Legislative successes such as the phase-out of microbeads in cosmetics have yet to extend beyond a few small countries. In places like Rwanda, a ban on plastic bags has led to a thriving plastic black market. Global plastic production is speeding up, not slowing down.
Even if we stopped manufacturing plastics today, all the plastic in the world that has yet to erode will gradually do so. No matter what we do, the environment - and our bodies - will become more plastified.
Put another way, our children and grandchildren will inhabit a world far denser in plastic than we do today. In 20 years, we’ll look back and be amazed that we were ever so plastic-free as we are in 2023.
So this is the story: We created this miracle substance, we used it in everything, it escaped our grip, and now it’s coming back to poison us. And we tell this story over and over. Each week brings a new iteration of the tale, with a new scientific study or a new surprise location where microplastics have been found. And each retelling of the story hits the same emotional notes.
As an example of the genre, here’s a passage from Mark O’Connell’s (very good) New York Times piece from April 2023:
The whole subject of microplastics is possessed of a nightmarish lucidity, because we understand it to be a symptom of a deeper disease. The unthinkable harm we have done to the planet — that is done to the planet on our behalf, as consumers — is being visited, in this surreal and lurid manner, on our own bodies. When we look at the decomposing bodies of those trash-filled birds, we know that we are looking not just at what we are doing to the world, but at what our damaged world is doing to us.
‘Nightmarish’, ‘disease’, ‘surreal’, ‘lurid’, ‘decomposing’, ‘damaged’ - this is bleak stuff!
After reading countless stories like this, week after week, I find myself wondering: does it have to be this grim?
If we categorise environmental stories as different genres, the story of microplastics is usually told as a body horror narrative. It’s a genre focused on contamination, queasiness, populated by alien monstrosities crawling under your skin.
I understand the impulse to focus on the horror of the alien plastic inside us. But at the same time, this is our future. One of the few certainties we have for the coming decades is that our environment and our bodies will be increasingly dense in plastic. I don’t want the only stories we tell about our future to be horror stories.
So what if we were to tell the story of plastic as something other than a body horror? What if we told it, for example, as a romance?
In a typical romance narrative, two characters come together. First they’re charmed by each others’ qualities - then they clash - then finally, they learn to accept each others’ flaws.
We were charmed by plastic, we fell in love with it. Then we discovered its flaws, and we recoiled from it. Now we need to learn to come to terms with it, to find some way to accept it. After all, plastic is a part of who we are. It’s in our blood, and you can’t recoil from your own blood.
To accept plastic doesn’t mean giving up on reducing the harm it causes. Loving something doesn’t mean you can’t criticise it. But when you look at everyone you love, from the infant in your arms to your partner of 50 years, you have to accept that that person is part plastic.
I think to myself, we love the world we live in. We love the people we share it with. And I think, we need to fall in love with plastic again. To hold it close. To come to it on our knees.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
Scenes for the Climate Era
Right now, the cast and company are in rehearsals for Belvoir Theatre’s producton of Scenes from the Climate Era. I spent a week with the cast and creatives watching them start to put this thing on its feet, and I am extremely excited. The season runs 27 May - 25 June for those in Sydney, and it includes a free SUV-disabling kit so you can enjoy taking cars out of action in your very own neighbourhood! I cannot wait.
The Best Kelp Secrets
Last month in Tasmania, Boho presented a new game for the Centre of Marine Socioecology. The Best Kelp Secrets models the possible future for a Tasmanian coastal community in an era of invading sea urchins and baby boomers. As ever, shout out to Julia Johnson for the gorgeous design.
The Future for Beginners
For those in London: next month I’ll be presenting a game as part of the London Design Biennale at Somerset House. The Future for Beginners was created by myself, Melanie Frances, Becky-Dee Trevenen and Chatham House, in collaboration with London Design Biennale and Coney. The game will run over June, but we’re holding a playtest for the public on Tuesday 30 May. If you’re around and interested, please join us.
5.30 - 7.30pm Tuesday 30 May
Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA
RSVP here if you’re interested.
In preparation for Scenes for the Climate Era at Belvoir, I’ve been going back to one of the records that inspired it - Maurice Louca’s breathtaking 2014 record Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot). Hammering Egyptian shaabi music with live drums, this is an all-time fav.
I’ve recently replaced my old copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ collected fictions, and I’m working my way through it again from top to bottom. Like Jeff Noon says, Borges is the wellspring. It’s always striking to reread an old core text like this and be reminded of how much of your work stems from that source. If you’ve never read him, just do, do.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers around new projects, feel free to get in touch.