Notes On Plastic by Heather Davis
It permeates almost everything about our daily existence, subtending and making possible the so-called comforts of contemporary life, the fixations of our modernity, our abundance, our media and communication networks. Yet its ubiquity renders it invisible, or imperceptible, too obvious of a material to warrant attention, too pervasive to question its presence, the multiple forms of synthetic oil-derived polymers that we call ‘plastics’. It is not only the substrate of contemporary human realities, whether those be the perfected and pristine ones of affluent societies, rendered clean, sealed, impenetrable, or those who suffer, suffocate on the other side, drowning in waste, sifting through these oil relics, infinitely aware of their value while intimately knowledgeable of how the ideal sealant is such a myth, a myth that leaches into water supplies, that off-gases in factories causing cancers, toxicities accumulating in the bodies of mothers who eat traditional diets in northern polar regions. We put it in our bodies, willingly and unwillingly, ingest it in pills, wrap ourselves in its protective layers, use it for pleasure, penetration, vibration. It can be fully integrated into the body without rejection. It is part of the most intimate aspects of our daily existence, yet we do not treat this truly amazing material with the reverence it deserves. Instead, in a sick twist of fate, this virtually immortal material, which has birthed new ecosystems and geologies, is discarded, cast away, loved only for an instant. It seals us off, creates a barrier between things in the world, preserving and containing. The dead return to rule again in a thanocracy that slowly drains life.
Once, a friend told me that humans were the only creatures who, when exposed to a smell for a long period of time, lost the ability to consciously and continuously smell it. Regardless of the veracity of this story, the ability of the human to move into so many different kinds of environments, to make homes and territories, to reshape that world around us to be habitable speaks to our ability to persist and forget in unpleasant surroundings. We are so much of this earth that we are in excess of it. And it is through our excessive love of our home that we wish to preserve it, exactly, through the legacies of the alien minerals that we unearth.
We like to pretend that the smell of plastic, that lovely new car smell, does not give us headaches. We like to say that we can’t smell it anymore. But we know. We know when the plasticizers and BPAs are leaching into our bodies, into our bloodstream, into our fat, into our endocrine systems. We push aside these thoughts but we know. Not just because of the ample, careful scientific evidence to support such claims, but also the same way we know when a lover has betrayed us, when someone close to us has died, when someone is looking at the back of our heads from the other side of the room. We know. It’s just that the perfect saran-wrapped apple, which came discounted with many other apples, the body that conforms to the normative and strangely sterile tenants of beauty, the green, green grass that appears almost florescent, without a weed or blemish is seductive. We love its beauty. We want to heighten its beauty and revel in it. We love these shiny surfaces, these perfectly preserved carrots. We love plastics because they are clean, because they are bright, because they are transparent, because of the odd feeling we get when we touch them. We love that we can throw them away and not think about them again, thinking we are through.
This love causes us to be blind to the ways in which they love us, strangling and impeding our life systems, slowly, but irrevocably and irreversibly. We love being free from the weight of decay, the weight of our ancestors, of the sense of obligation that binds us to the earth. It is so much nicer to live in the world of seamlessness, of surfaces that bend and mold, that become someone else’s problem. We love these little, shiny, useless objects in much the way that birds do, and like them, we will die because of them, if not literally twisted in our guts until we can no longer eat, then in the excessive amplitudes of cancer, the gnawing sickness of a multitude of environmental illnesses.
We love them in the way we have been taught by every Hollywood movie we have ever watched: you and me together forever, you in me, me in you, you will change me slowly, bend me to your desire, and I will love it. I will love the things you do to me, until I can’t. I will love the things you do to me, but will not wish them for my children. I will love the hold you have on me. I will try to change you, but you will refuse. I want you to change, now, we have gone on too long; this is no longer good for me. But you don’t care. And although I push you away, to the one who is poorer, to the one who can’t say no, you leave your mark on me. I will never be the same. And then I realize it is not just you and me having this romance, it is everyone. We have all been snuggled up, under the fleece sheets, holding a plastic cup, under a plastic light to watch something on our computers, made lighter because they are plastic. And if, instead, we are one of the many, many more who daily live off sorting you, deconstructing you, placing you into piles, bins, you realize that you are, in fact, a resource, you are valuable. But you have already seeped into everything. You are our life now. But you are not life; you are not even death. You are the dream beyond death. You are the nightmare of men who seek death and do not find it. You are my love, truly forever.
Plastic Polution Coaltion: http://plasticpollutioncoalition.org/
5 Gyres Institute: http://5gyres.org/
Discard Studies: http://discardstudies.com/
Max Liboiron http://maxliboiron.com/
Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution: http://www.materialworldblog.com/occasional/citizens-guide-to-plastic-pollution/
 See http://www.silentsnow.org/
 Plexiglass, or Perspex was discovered to be completely compatible with the human body during World War II when fighter pilots had it lodged in them after crashes. See Oron Catts “Exploring the Biological Milieu – In a Search for Substrates at the Sub-Arctic” in Field_Notes, edited by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and Terike Haapoja. Painopaikka: Finish Bioart Society, 2013.
 Called the ‘plastisphere’, plastics are becoming home to floating rafts of new ecologies primarily composed of different bacteria. See Zettler, Erik, Tracy Mincer and Linda Amaral-Zettler. “Life in the ‘Plastisphere’: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris” Environmental Science and Technology 47 (2013): 7137-7146.
 A new type of rock, made of plastic, has been dubbed the ‘plastiglomerate’. See http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2014/06/rocks-made-plastic-found-hawaiian-beach
 Bisphenol-A (or BPA) is the most notorious of chemicals, called ‘plasticizers’, that are added to plastics. It disrupts hormonal and endocrine systems. However, many other chemicals that continue to be allowed in plastic containers that are often used for food also affect human (and other animal’s) endocrine systems. See http://news.discovery.com/human/health/bpa-plastic-food-hormones-chemicals-110715.htm
 Seabirds, whales, fish, turtles and microbes have all been known to eat plastic which then fills up their stomachs until they slowly starve to death as well as causing tumors and liver problems. See http://bird-rescue.org/our-work/research-and-education/how-plastics-affect-birds.aspx; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/08/spain-sperm-whale-death-swallowed-plastic; http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110328/full/news.2011.191.html; http://kuow.org/post/study-eating-plastic-causes-tumors-liver-problems-fish; http://www.seeturtles.org/1128/ocean-plastic.html
Heather Davis is a researcher, writer and editor from Montréal. She has recently become obsessed with plastic. She is the editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Politics, Aesthetics, Environments and Epistemologies.