How much plastic do we need? Do we need trillions of plastic particles floating atop the seas? Enough plastic to fill the stomachs of seabirds and whales until they starve to death? Enough that nanoplastics are nestled within the cells—within the cells—of tiny aquatic creatures? Do we need enough plastic to form a garbage patch twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific? Enough that in the abyssal depths of the Mariana Trench, some 30,000 feet underwater, plastic bags dance like jellyfish? Enough to seed clouds above the Pyrenees and the Himalayas so that microplastics rain upon remote peaks? Do we need enough plastic to sell a million bottles per minute? Enough to use untold millions of disposable cups daily? (What, anyway, could we possibly mean by “disposable”?) Do we need enough plastic so that we can always have conveniently packaged foods on hand? Enough to wrap pre-peeled bananas? Enough that it shows up in our stool samples? In our placentas?
We need our pens and computers and phones and bottles and bags. Or do we? They’re all imminent technotrash, future technofossils. We throw them away, but there is no “away,” only temporary sequestration. As more and more recycling centers refuse our refuse, the question remains: how much plastic do we need? If recycling is out, what about reduce, reuse, repair, refuse? (Regurgitate?) Do we really need to double the global production of plastic in the next twenty years, as the World Economic Forum predicts we will? How much plastic needs to be in circulation?
Well, during winter in the inland Northwest, I need enough plastic to keep me warm and dry: my flannel shirt is 40% plastic; my boots and jackets, plastic too; my water-repellent pants are nylon, elastane, and polyester. Now I’m sitting in my underwear (with an elastic waistband) reading the label of my pulled-down pants, wondering how much plastic is in my intestines, in my lungs, in my blood. I feel—and am—almost naked. I’m naked to a sprawling network of disintegrated plastics that have infiltrated my body. We all now eat and drink and breathe and excrete plastic.
A culture of convenience and planned obsolescence and globalized capitalism has left the earth littered with the stuff of Dr. Frankenstein’s (or Sarah Connor’s, or Donna Haraway’s) worst nightmares: cyborgs of flesh commingled with congealed liquid fossils, humans whose lives are usurped and truncated by the metabolic machinations and geological lifespans of their unwanted components—which are themselves repurposed dinosaurs enacting a slow violence from eons beyond the grave. Truly, this is the age of anthropos (or thanatos?), for we, in our arrogance and greed and sloth, have exhumed oily death from the earth, immortalized it—deified it—as plastic, then fractured and atomized it and cast the remains into the winds and seas, poisoning all we’ve ever known. And for what? (Aside from the riches of billionaires.) So that I—warm, dry, and comfortable—can click away at these keys?
Michael Bishop is a writer from O’ahu, Hawai’i. Informed by studies in psychology, philosophy, and literature, and an erstwhile career in environmental work and emergency rescue, his work often explores the reciprocal determinism between nature and humanity. His writing appears in The Normal School, About Place Journal, High Desert Journal, Ruminate, Points In Case, and Star 82 Review. He has been awarded a 2022 Fulbright grant in New Zealand and is an avid explorer of both wilderness and consciousness alike. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho.