Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised

When exactly I began putting plastic items in a special tub for recycling I don’t remember. Probably in the 1980s when I moved to Princeton. Then my wife and I separated plastic items, tin cans and newspapers from the regular garbage and put them in a special can to be recycled. Then too certain plastic bottles were separated from all of the other plastic items and joined with aluminum cans in a large leaf bag—plastic of course—because we took those to the supermarket where they earned us a nickel a piece. And all of this continued in Rochester after we moved there and bought a house where I live now—by myself since my wife and I parted ways. I continued to separate the plastic bottles from the rest of the plastic items, mostly food containers and plastic bags from the supermarket which I put in the blue plastic tub that on garbage day I set on the curb beside the garbage can. All of this recycling I continued to do without ever giving it any more thought than I did the garbage until one garbage day the wind blew the recycle tub into the street where a vehicle hit it. It did not completely shatter it—the well-known durability of plastic is why it finds so many uses. I tried to salvage the tub with duct tape—whose top layer I might add in passing is made of a plastic called polythene. Polythene, polystyrene—there are more kinds of plastic than you can shake a stick at.

But, back to the fate of my blue plastic recycling tub. Despite duct tape’s well-deserved fame as a quick fix for all manner of things, in this instance it really didn’t work very well. So I threw the recycle tub in the garbage can.

Which might be the epitome of all that is to follow.

I’m well aware that readers may fear this account of my long involvement with recycling plastic may be begin to sound like a parable about my marriage, but believe me that is not my intent. The proof of that is that after my divorce I resolved never to get married again, whereas after I threw the recycle tub in the garbage can, I called the city to get another tub. Twice. It was only after the second call failed to yield any result that I said forget it. And I just started throwing everything in the garbage. Which rest assured did not cause even a hint of discord between me and my conscience.

The reason for my indifference to the matter was that, in my view, a problem produced by a socio-economic system could not be solved by a mere aggregation of individual actions. The view that it could be solved that way I wrote off, in the case of individuals putting plastic tubs full of plastic ware on the curb, was a homely example of what Marx calls bourgeois philosophy. Whose failing is to not see beyond the surface of myriad individual actions to the social reality that underlies them. To say it in still homelier terms, it is what I sometimes think of the Rock Festival Theory of Sociology. This term derives from my experience at rock concerts where “festival seating” was in effect. The floor of a coliseum had no chairs and it was first come, first serve as to where you ended up in the crowd. When the music began, the crowd would stand and surge forward and invariably an individual at the very front, feeling pressed by the crowd behind him, would shout at that mass of people, “Everybody take three steps back!” And immediately a disjointed chorus of three or four people in the front would chime in with some others a little farther from the stage, changing this slightly, shouting, “Move back! You’ll see better!” I hardly need to tell you that none of this had any effect whatsoever. Not because everyone towards the rear knew that these shouters subjectively did not care whether the people in the rear could see or not, but only were only using the three steps move back ploy because they were crowded. But that ploy was not the reason no one ever took three steps back. Even though, if not most at least many of them knew that objectively it was true that if all stepped back—practicing social distancing before the term had even been invented—they might have a marginally better view. No, the reason no one ever took three steps back was because each person made the subjective calculation that probably no one else will do it and if he does he will end up with a slightly worse view. But, if by chance everyone else but him does take three steps back, he will obtain a marginally better view by not doing what everyone else is doing!

And that was why initially I felt no remorse about ceasing to recycle plastics or—to come clean—a few other things as well since I no longer had a plastic tub.

And that might have been the end of me devoting any thought at all to recycling. Except for the minor matter that I knew I should not mention the fact I wasn’t recycling anything anymore to certain friends who take recycling as a moral duty, friends are not nearly as far to the left as me—which is somewhere well beyond the comfortable suburbs of thought. I could’ve written their tiresome scoldings for them so I had no need to hear any of those.

Anyway, that might have been the end of my thoughts about recycling had I not happened upon a program on PBS’s program Frontline at the end of March. The program sketched in the history of environmentalism from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring through Earth Day to the present. It showed how the concern for the environment grew out of incidents like rivers catching fire soon led to the recycling of waste, an activity that grew to the point until it became what it is today, a fact of daily life that, as I’ve said, no one pays any attention to until the day when they must put out on the curb the special plastic tub etc etc and even then, who thinks about it? And the recycling of plastic also became something more important with respect to this essay. It became a commercial industry. And the plot twist of PBS documentary followed from that.

The documentary showed how recycling attempts not only failed to eliminate plastic pollution, they actually increased it. And that empirical evidence nailed the case that formerly rested merely on my Rock Festival Theory. And it was at that point in the program I increasingly began to look at the entire issue of recycling from a Marxist perspective, so that when it ended I thought the one critical piece missing was someone well versed in the Marxist critique of capitalism to wrap it up by saying all of these things would have been predicted by Marx.

With mention of Marx the camel has his nose inside the tent, and by the end of this essay the whole camel will be inside the tent with us. That is how these things go as my Rock Festival Theory also shows—in its own way.

Be that as it may, as a result of the documentary, or perhaps because I felt it lacked the appropriate ending, I devoted some time to reading about plastic. That soon grew in ways I had not anticipated. Even as the invention of plastic would lead to developments on a global scale its inventor could not have imagined in his wildest dreams.

What follows—a summary of the history of plastic, of plastic pollution and of the recycling of plastic—is the result of that reading. Which began—where else?—with Wikipedia.

Wikipedia tells us that plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes in England in 1856 He called it “Parkesine.” It was made from cellulose (the major component of plant cell walls) and was treated with nitric acid as a solvent.

As a bid for everlasting fame, Parke’s name for what he invented fell somewhat short. And it’s just as well he never lived to see what his discovery would lead to, because the obscure fate of his name would be a crushing disappointment. His name never attained the status of Faraday or Madame Curie or Marconi. Probably this is because other improved forms of what we now call generically plastic soon replaced Parkesin for all intents and purposes, and not unreasonably these had new names. Galalith, Bakelite. The latter like Parkesine was named by its Belgian inventor Leo Baekeland after himself and as a bid to immortalize himself the term he coined was more successful since certain cookware is still described as made of “bakelite.” Unfortunately I have not been able at this stage of my research to pinpoint precisely when and by whom the term “plastic” was first used in the generic sense we now use it. Apparently none of the people involved in the early history of plastic shared my interest in the nature of language, in words and their etymologies, in their evolving and changing meanings over time and such things. That’s because they didn’t read Nietzsche. So much the worse for them—and unfortunately, in this instance, for us too. So that all that can be said about when “plastic” became the generic term is that by the 1930s it was used in the sense we still use it. Sorry. History is mostly a record of disappointments and flops, and that’s why I’m a professor of literature and not history.

Nevertheless back to history of plastic. Which, if you’re an engineer for Dow Chemicals, might seem an epic that proceeds from triumph to triumph, or if you’re an effete bohemian, reads like Faulkner’s depressing story of the Snopes and their takeover of Yoknapatawpha County. A mobile mass of ugliness that wipes out and replaces much of what is distinctive and beautiful in the world. Well in the case of plastic, there is at least this to be said. An American didn’t invent it, and we can say what a Starbuck’s manager said to one of my Italian friends about pizza after he went to Italy for the first time, “You people may have invented pizza, but we perfected it.”

But yes—the history. Just the facts, mam. The industrial/commercial uses of plastic were limited until after World War I. Then the varieties of plastic multiplied rapidly which led to a similarly rapid expansion of its industrial and commercial uses. The German corporation BASF developed polystyrene and became in the 1930s one of the leading producers of plastic, as it still is today. By the 1940s and 1950s mass production of plastic fantastic things exploded, and mass production has grown rapidly ever since with new uses for plastic being found all the time. If you google, “How many types of plastic are there,” the reply is that there are seven types of which five end in either the suffix –ene or – ide, the sixth ending in –ate. That leaves the seventh. The seventh type is, ominously, “Other.” Which tell us that no one has tabulated them, and that fact tells us more than the other six put together. I doubt that any other material can match the expansion of plastic throughout all the segments of the global economy and all over the physical globe itself.

Now at least the story of plastic begins to resemble the pandemic instead of my marriage.

Oil companies expanded their petrochemical activities since many plastics were made from petrochemical materials. Many more types were made from agriculture products. At the same time the use of plastics expanded into the automotive industry, and the manufacture of airplanes, clothing, home furnishings, packaging, the construction industry, tools and instruments used in medicine, engineering, photography, film—it would be very difficult to name any facet of human life in which plastic is not used.

Now it is important to pause and note that in the first three or four decades of the mass production of plastics until the beginning of recycling of plastics in the 1970s anything made wholly or partly of plastic when it ceased being used was treated as garbage. And therefore all plastic objects were treated in all the different ways that garbage was treated in those years. It was buried. It was burnt. It was thrown in the river—if the river was on fire so much the better—and it was thrown out the car window. And it may perhaps surprise some readers that today fifty years after the mass recycling of plastics began, burying, burning and throwing it aside wherever one happens to be at the moment remain the ways by which 91% of all plastics are disposed of. After fifty years of recycling only 9% of all plastics are recycled. And you will not be disappointed to know of that 9% there’s more bad news to come. Relax.

Plastic production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 tons in 2014 — an increase of more than 2,000%. A rate of growth in any human activity probably unmatched until Donald Trump invented tweeting.

And what was more surprising, even at this preliminary point in my research, was that the recycled plastic used to make new products required an additional component of newly manufactured plastic. In other words the use of recycled plastic is also increasing the manufacture of new plastic rather than replacing it. So that one ton of recycled plastic does not replace one ton of new plastic—even if part of the new plastic was made from recycled plastic. And that now new plastic when recycled again will again not replace the equivalent amount of new plastic. We dare not pursue that issue any further. It begins to summon up a prospect as vertiginous as Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

The ubiquity of plastic now means it is found now not simply everywhere in human society, but also everywhere in the natural world. A United States Geological Survey 2019 publication bore the title “It Is Raining Plastic.” One of the three authors of the article Gregory Wetherbee examining rainwater samples collected in the Rocky Mountains was surprised to find microscopic multicolored filaments of plastic. “I think the most important result that we can share with the American public is that there’s more plastic out there than meets the eye,” said Wetherbee. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”

Another recent study found microplastics in the Pyrenees, suggesting plastic particles could travel with the wind for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Other studies have turned up microplastics in the deepest reaches of the of the ocean in lakes and rivers and shorelines in Asia, Europe and North America, UK lakes and rivers and in US groundwater.

Where do these particles of plastic come from?

Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher at Penn State-Behrend says that one major source is trash. The plastic in landfills decomposes—degrades is the favored term among plastic experts—until it reaches the size where it can leech into the ground water which carries into lakes and rivers and from there into the oceans—all along the way degrading into smaller and smaller particles until they become the size of the filaments that ended up in the rain water samples that Wetherbee saw. Or until they end up in the Marianna Trench and in the bellies of the creatures that live there. Or until they end up in our drinking water.

Mason pointed out that there are also numerous sources of plastic microfibers besides trash. “Plastic fibers also break off your clothes every time you wash them, and plastic particles are byproducts of a variety of industrial processes.” Almost anything made of plastic could be shedding particles into the atmosphere, the water and the ground and then into plants, animals and humans.

Unknown is whether it would be theoretically possible to flush all plastic out of the natural world, and how long that might take. When those questions were put to Gregory Wetherbee he replied, “Even if we waved a magic wand and stopped using plastic, it’s unclear how long plastic would continue to circulate through our rivers and waters systems. Based on what we do know about plastic found in deep sources of groundwater, and accumulated in rivers, I would guess centuries.”

On that note, let’s consider why recycling plastic has failed so miserably—“failed” that is, if at the outset of recycling in the 1970s we grant that most of the people thought the purpose of recycling was to reduce plastic pollution. A brief excursus will show why its putative failure was actually a success from the standpoint of the greatest economic system Jesus ever devised. The evidence for this claim is found in two simple formulas made up of the same two letters, rearranged as though they are a simple word game for children. The formulas are found in Vol.1, Pt. 2 Marx’s work Capital. Read ‘em and weep:

C – M – C

M – C – M

The two formulas represent two different modes of exchange. In C – M – C a commodity C is sold for money M in order to buy another commodity C. In the second formula money buys a commodity in order to sell it for money. Marx explains the key difference between the two modes this way:

The circuit C-M-C starts with one commodity, and finishes with another, which falls out of circulation and into consumption. Consumption, the satisfaction of wants, in one word, use-value, is its end and aim. The circuit M-C-M, on the contrary, commences with money and ends with money. Its leading motive, and the goal that attracts it, is therefore mere exchange-value.

The formula M—C—M explains why the global business of recycling plastic has not only increased plastic pollution which now become a commodity but—and this aspect was not noted in the “Front Line” program—what quickly became the recycling industry has actually increased the production of new plastic whose byproducts create more pollution and therefore more commodities. Obviously the circuit M—C—M can be repeated as infinitum—or ad nauseam?—generating ever more plastic and plastic pollution with the whole miserable process looking more and more like, yes, a pandemic.

One more part of the story remains to be told. What is it about the 91% of plastic that—like the legendary stay-at-home voter—they defy a great public project whose essential goodness is acknowledged by everyone and his dog?

Much of the 91% of plastics that aren’t recycled are called “mixed plastics.” The terminology—the 9%, the 91% and so on—begins to resemble that describing the society that generates so much plastic and plastic pollution. Mixed plastics are those that due to their composition cannot be recycled, though this might change. In 2017 the Eastman Chemical Company announced a breakthrough in recycling mixed plastics. An article in Plastics News said the company planned to begin “commercial production in 2019 by leveraging existing assets” which will “accelerate the circular economy.” I searched Plastics News to see if this had in fact happened, but I had already used up my limit—1 apparently—of free articles. My knees nearly buckled at the thought of having to pay for a subscription to Plastics News. Fortunately the company’s website rescued me from that dismaying prospect. There I learned that in October of 2019 the company began commercial production of recycling mixed plastics. Before we pop open the champagne I must add two things that even at this stage of my knowledge of plastic I know that will almost certainly make the company’s claim that this will end all plastic waste false. Shit, go get a drink. The first problem with mixed plastic is a chemical issue. If the process resembles that of recycling the 9% then it will require use of an additive of new plastic and hence increase the production of all sorts of plastics—and the implications of that bring us to the other kind of plastic that makes up the rest of the 91%, what is called “dirty plastic.” The very words offer an unpleasant prospect. Like kicking a plastic tub in your basement and seeing a horde of cockroaches scatter every which way

The reason dirty plastic is not recycled now is not a chemical issue, but a financial one. Dirty plastic may consist of mixed plastic or of the sorts of plastic that now make up the 9%. The reason they are not now recycled has nothing to do with their chemical composition. The reason they are not recycled is that they are grimy having labels and what not that cannot be removed from each plastic object except by hand. By painstaking and filthy work no one except the poorest people would perform. For which reason it is highly unlikely that Eastman Chemical’s process will recycle dirty plastic. Some portion of dirty plastics will, eventually be recycled. Yet even in that case, the same is true of their recycling that is true of all recycling of plastic: it will require an additive of new plastic and hence will not completely replace the production of more new plastic which in turn will mean there will be more dirty plastic and so on. And that’s all I’ll say about that since I’m trying to keep this upbeat.

Now it is time to switch from the circulation of plastic back to Marx and the circulation of money and commodities. Which almost seems like a relief at this point. We begin with the fact in the circulation of money and commodities even dirty plastic after some lengthy and arduous process becomes a commodity C. But, sadly, one for which there is little demand. The little sunshine moment—as the last feature in local news is called—is almost immediate extinguished by the larger bad news that leads the national news. And the same is true here. If it bleeds it leads.

Certain poor countries—Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Viet Nam to name a few—that have been paid to serve as a dumping grounds for waste plastics, especially dirty plastics since China stopped receiving all but the “cleanest” plastics in 2017, are the locations where that miserable labor is done, that is, sorting out what may be salvaged from the dirty plastic.

The dirty plastics are often bundled up in 10 ft. cubes and stacked next to each next to the shantytowns of the poorest people. The only positive thing to be said of these peoples’ jobs is that they don’t involve a long commute. But the painstaking nature of the work proceeds so slowly, that the people cannot possibly keep up with the ever-increasing amounts of the massive cubes of dirty plastic always arriving from the wealthy societies of the world, so that the growing mass of dirty plastic threatens to crowd them out of their homes—another of the contradictions that Marx says capitalism inescapably creates—so that now even the poor countries are looking for buyers who will complete the whole sorry circuit M—C—M. No doubt at a loss. Remember that Marx’s formula does not mean that a given value of the second M represents a profit. It only signifies the conversion of the commodity C back into money, in this instance almost certainly at a loss. And here again another aspect of Marx’s critique of capitalism finds its grim validation. The more they work, the poorer they become.

On this account, the oceans being wholly unregulated have become a last resort for the vast amount of unrecyclable plastic. And now a permanent island of plastic bottles and containers floating around in the Pacific Ocean is now large enough that it could be considered geographical feature. In which case it deserves a proper name. I propose Milton Friedman Island after the wizard of neo-liberal economics. The 10 ft. cubes of plastic now crowding the shanty towns of the poor must have some buoyancy. Perhaps they could be towed out to Friedman Island, lashed to it and paved with astroturf to form a new nation made entirely of plastic. A nation in which plastic would no longer be considered pollution or waste. How could it be, it being the very material substance of its nationhood?

I mentioned the Frontline show in a conversation with my friend Kurtis, telling him also that sometime well before that I had stopped recycling things. And he then told me of watching a friend cutting the plastic webs that harness together six-packs of canned beverages. When she noticed him watching her, she explained she did this because fish and land creatures get the plastic webs caught on their bodies. After a moment Kurtis commented that the product should not be on the planet to begin with and it was an example of a corporation training the populace to try to solve without payment a problem the corporation had created. He said all she was doing was enabling the continuing production of the plastic webs. She looked at him and went on cutting them up. Which might be taken as a minor form of neurotic behavior. I know it’s not true, but I’m going act as though it’s true. Because it makes me feel better to think I’m help the little animals. Thinking that falls entirely in the domain of the Pleasure Principle. Or to give the last word to Marx: she prefers the fog of ideology and the opiate of the people.

Of the greater climate and ecological crisis of which plastic is one part—though a very large part—no one puts the solution in clearer terms than little seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg: “The climate and ecological crisis cannot be solved within today’s political and economic systems. That isn’t an opinion. That’s a fact.”

We live in a world shrink-wrapped in global capitalism. We breathe plastic. We drink plastic. We eat plastic. Microscopic particles of plastic float in air of the room in which I write. In the Pacific Ocean is an island made of plastic. Plastic has become part of nature. It is our fate. There is nothing more to say. And as Huck says, I’m rotten glad of it.

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