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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 2/7/20

Global Plastic

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The evidence mounts of the apocalyptic significance of Global Plastic
The evidence mounts of the apocalyptic significance of Global Plastic
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In the Beginning, there was no plastic.

Four and a half billion years ago, or thereabouts, there was nothing but a hot, rocky, lifeless mass bathed in water vapor, ammonia, hydrogen and methane. After seven-hundred million years, the Earth had cooled sufficiently for the water vapor to condense and become an ocean. And still there was no plastic. A little over half-a-billion years ago, layers of dead phytoplankton, algae and primitive marine organisms that had begun living in the ocean drifted to its floor and were trapped in mud and sand. Over geologic ages, through heat and pressure, these layers of decayed organic material became oil and liquid gas trapped beneath the earth's surface of rock and clay.

And still there was no plastic. But its feedstock was now comingled within the seams, pools, shale beds, and seeps of fossil biomass the hydrocarbons that had trapped the solar energy of an ancient world. The simplest of all the hydrocarbons was methane, encapsulated as a liquid gas from vapors released by the rotting carcasses of tiny sea creatures and, over time, larger, more complex organisms. Out of the simple methane molecule, in those dark, cloacal spaces, with the addition of a single carbon atom, variously configured, were created ethane, propane, and butane.

Today, these feedstocks, sourced from Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids (HGLs), derived from natural gas, are turned into plastic pellets, or nurdles, which are the raw material of finished plastics. The United States is currently undergoing a so-called 'Resin Boom', with manufacturers daily producing trillions of the lentil sized pellets, which are mostly shipped to Asia. Pellet 'loss', in production and shipping, is now a major source of global plastic pollution. Nurdles, likely to be found in their hundreds on the beach nearest you, are but the latest reification of our plundering of the earth's subterranean store of hydrocarbons.

Peat, a coal precursor, formed by decayed organic material lying close to the Earth's surface and partially digested in acidic and anaerobic peatland ecosystems, has been harvested as a fossil fuel since the human discovery of fire. The unlikelihood of a flammable square of turf cut from a bog, was, much later, matched by the discovery of sedimentary rocks that would burn. Coal then become the first hydrocarbon to be mined, and its use as a fuel dates back at least three millennia to China. In Europe, it was used by the Romans to heat, among other things, the water in their elaborate bathing facilities. Today, a large part of its historical notoriety is linked to it fueling, in a very literal sense, Europe's Industrial Revolution.

From the beginning, fossil fuels have been sought out as alternative sources of energy to less tractable resources. Thus, in the second half of the nineteenth century, site-specific water mills were replaced by coal-powered steam engines that could be located in areas of cheap labor, and lamp-oil sourced from whale carcasses was replaced by oil distilled from petroleum. The first widely used plastic was celluloid, which used plant-based polymers. Polymers are large molecules made up of long chains of smaller molecules called monomers. They provide the strength and flexibility, or plasticity, inherent in the cellulose that makes up the cell walls of plants. These natural polymers are also found in hair, silk and DNA.

It was the polymers present in hydrocarbons, however, that held the promise, at the start of the twentieth century, of a vast world of plastics. The first to be made, in 1907, was Bakelite, from coal tar, and was initially designed to replace shellac, sourced from Asian beetles, and used in electrical insulation. It was quickly developed as a key material in the burgeoning consumer goods market, used to encase radios, telephones and clocks, and made into housewares and jewelry.

In 1920, Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) established the first steam-cracking plant, in West Virginia, specifically to produce ethylene, a short polymer petrochemical with a wide range of industrial applications, but none as epochal as the production of polyethylene. Still dominated by Bakelite, the plastics industry was slow to respond. After 1929, development was constrained by the Depression, but Wallace Carothers, working for Du Pont, developed an artificial rubber, neoprene, in 1931, and nylon in 1938 both of which were militarily significant materials. Consequently, the production of plastic metastasized during World War II. Fueled by the post-war economic boom and an excess of production capacity, it quickly became the preeminent material in consumer products, clothing, packing materials and food storage.

Swept up in the 'Great Acceleration' - the post-war decades of excessive consumption, extravagant leaps in technology, profligate waste and CO2 emissions - this consummate material of modern materialism birthed Global Plastic, a circumstance in which, like Global Warming, we, and all other beings, now live and breathe. The Earth's atmosphere had become a dumping ground for its greenhouse gases and its oceans a sink hole for its discarded plastics.

The evidence mounts of the apocalyptic significance of Global Plastic. As an acknowledged endocrine disruptor, the material penetrates creatures through their skin, in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food that they ingest. Yet, the devastating consequences of a material that refuses to decompose, is recalcitrant in all attempts to recycle it (90.5% goes unrecycled, world-wide), is being produced in ever increasing quantities, and in its discarded after-life threatens to colonize the lands and oceans of the planet, remains overshadowed by that enclosing cloud of upper atmosphere CO2, which is, to coin a phrase, sucking all the oxygen out of the room. For now, Global Warming dwarfs the perceived exigencies of Global Plastic. All the while, the production of plastic, from hydrocarbon to finished material, contributes greatly to global CO2 emissions and is expected to reach 17% of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Those in the business of proclaiming ecological disaster have a professional interest in assuring their audience that there is still hope amidst the encyclopedic evidence they present to the contrary; that change can occur without radically re-thinking the world and our place within it; that state sanctioned planetary predation, of which the subterranean extraction of hydrocarbons is but a part, can continue without fatally compromising the viability of the world. Greta Thunberg speaks her dark and eerie truth to power, uncompromisingly pure in her walking of her talk. But the single-minded focus on CO2 emissions, that she and others profess, has shaped our concerns for the environment so that the clearly observable anthropogenic changes to the climate have become the dominant trope in our visions of the apocalypse. The terrestrial threat of a planet wrapped in plastic waste, sourced from the same hydrocarbon plunder that generates CO2, has been slow to infiltrate our primal fears for the survival, in recognizable form, of the earth's natural systems.

It is now apparent that our failure to maintain a sustainable, naturally regenerating environment which we share with all other human and extra-human beings is the result of a systemic flaw in the way we have organized our hegemonic, first world, human-privileging societies. It is not just the extinctions and the loss of wild-life habitat for those species that remain; the ubiquity of plastic waste on land and sea; the micro-plastics in our bodies, our water, and the micro-fibers in the wind; the ever-rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; the fires, the rising sea-levels, the pollution, and the droughts and other consequences of extreme weather. These are but the symptoms of a profound misunderstanding of our place in the world.

It is a misunderstanding that has as its consequence the widely touted prediction that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world's oceans, by weight, than fish.

It is a misunderstanding that has as its consequence seeds, plants and animals washing up on shores where they are not native by inadvertently riding the oceans currents on windblown aggregations, or rafts, of plastic waste and devastating the finely balanced ecosystems where they land.

It is a misunderstanding that has as its consequence the clear plastic bag which strangles birds, asphyxiates small children and is mistaken for food by marine life, while being freely dispensed at your local Farmers Market to be filled with organically grown fruits and vegetables.

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John Davis is a practicing architect in Ojai, California. He has taught Environmental Humanities at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and at Viridis Graduate Institute. He blogs on history and the environment at  (more...)

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