The Duration of Plastic

Posted on: 28 March 2017 by Sarah Hymas in Posts


Most weeks I spend at least half an hour collecting up plastic bottles, shredded food cartons, frayed rope, deflated balloons and other less distinguishable bits of plastic from a beach on Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. Generally it is the kind of stuff we’re meant to throw away (if not directly into the sea): stuff we don’t give a minute’s thought to.

I collect it because it is in front of me. I see it daily. Some days are worse than others, depending on wind direction, strength of tide throwing the dross up the beach. Other days, if the tide gets to it before me, the rubbish is drawn back out of sight, away to wherever. I can forget it about it, until the next splintered hoard arrives, until years of watching this accumulation and dispersal has meant it never really leaves my imagination. I look at the winkle shells, marram grasses, shingle, unconsciously searching for snaps of orange or blue that do not belong.

Plastic’s integrity, as a petroleum-based product, is resilience. The belief that anything derived from oil, from millions of years of compression, ought to be ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ is as outmoded as the belief that time is money. Eight per cent of oil produced is used in plastic production. The carbon in oil locked in plastic does not breakdown quickly, and even more slowly in the cold dark currents of the ocean. Time, in the sense of plastic, as in the sense of oil, is infinitesimal change. If something takes so long to develop, it’s only inevitable that it will take a long time to decompose. 

We should have the imagination to hold this process. Plastic’s ability to extend its reach to being both building and biro is, after all, the manifestation of human imagination. We looked at cellulose, at silk, at ivory and thought of ways of emulating these qualities to enrich and cushion our lives. If plastic were to be magically eradicated, we’d lose our fleeces, takeaways, computers, wiring, movies, car interiors, and so on. We would also lose the remaining elephants, tortoises, whales, forests and all the other natural products that plastics replaced. Plastic promised an insurance against decay, as well as disease.

On one hand plastic is cheap and easy to replace. It had to become disposal to be viable. If it lasted as long as it could, there’d be no demand to make enough to turn a profit. However, slowness is its essential nature. This truth is in evidence in the shreds I collect from the beach. I have no idea how old many of the things I find are, many are, of course, faded from the light and salt, others, like the green-coated Every Ready battery pack I found once, seem to have washed up from the seventies. In fact none of the plastic ever produced has entirely disappeared. Microbes have yet to catch up with our pace of living. We have yet to catch up. 

I organise my collection: recyclable bottles and jars; larger buckets, tubs and car parts I take to the local tip; crap I can throw away with my rubbish; rope I can reuse; and the interesting or attractive things whose provenance I can’t determine go into a box of the Unknown.

Most of the ocean is unknown to us, but it is not an absence. It is not a nowhere that is nothing to do with us, a place simply to be crossed to get somewhere else. It is an everywhere. It is the most visible element of our single hydrological cycle. It, like mountains and deserts, is a reminder of the geological time our daily lives forget. It provides over half the oxygen of the planet. It has absorbed over half of all man-made carbon dioxide. It is a regulator for our climate.

I continue to collect the strewn plastic because to leave it there is not an option. While regular inventions promise to remove plastic from the sea, much of it is so small they’d be removing the similarly-sized essential plankton from the water too. The most effective way is to prevent the plastic getting into or returning to the ocean, and this is slow and laborious. As well as plastic, over the years I’ve found carcasses, in various states of decay, of cows, sheep, porpoises, seals, guillemots, oyster catchers and many other disembodied bones and beaks. I am squeamish and avoid these mangled stinking corpses, with a squawky bounce if surprised by one. The shoreline is a regular reminder of mortality and my clearing up the plastic is a desire to prevent more unnecessary death. It is, I know as I drag my bin bag over the drying kelp, a somewhat foolhardy, certainly endless task.

Marine debris is well documented; many of us know about the pledges to remove microbeads from cosmetics, that Johnson and Johnson are no longer going to use plastic shafts (in half the world) for their “cotton buds” and how synthetic fibres are washed out of our clothes and into the sea on each wash. If it isn’t already invisible, sinking below the surface or trapped in gyres miles out to sea, plastic is being pulverised into microscopic debris by tidal currents. The sea contains the smallest and largest organisms in existence, and holds the oldest living creature in the world. The micro-debris can be eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by crustaceans, which are eaten by fish which are eaten by larger fish, then marine mammals, or birds. At each level of trophic transfer the toxic concentration increases. At each stage it disables creatures’ movements, bloats their stomachs with non-nutritional bulk, and releases toxins that render them sterile. If it isn’t eaten, and doesn’t remain large enough to anchor fish, seals or birds, it slowly decomposes, releasing gases - carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, chlorine, whatever was added in production - as it diminishes. As gas it attaches to water molecules, condenses into cloud which falls as rain.

Our ingenuity has become a plague.  Our fingerprints are everywhere. We have enjoyed the rights we gave ourselves to plastic convenience, hygiene and medical advance. We cannot retract the responsibility that comes with it. One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to move responsibility for climate change to a new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. To link climate change to business and industrial growth is like treating plastic as disposable: it comes down to economics. Between climate change and plastic waste is ocean: the sink which is becoming more acidic from atmospheric carbon, and more acidic from the degrading carbon in plastic. Ocean is what links the air and land. 

What I find washed up democratises every human action: from personal hygiene to family celebrations to farm management. Against the backdrop of the ocean we are a single species that has the capacity to imagine, produce and affect change. Walking alongside this slice of ocean reminds me of my citizenship: my responsibility to my species, and others in the world. I collect the discarded, lost and forgotten elements of what makes us human with a conviction that is silent and solitary, voluntary and imperative. It is disgusting and fulfilling. It is precision surgery (every lump of Styrofoam I try to bag reminds me of how when tumours are cut from the body there's a chance of inadvertently releasing malignant cells into the blood). It connects me to wider currents of activity, to myself and to the remote. 

Keywords: environment, Sarah Hymas.