Zombie plastic - single-use plastic just won't die

Saving ourselves from our immortal stuff

26.04.17Solitaire Townsend

As a child, I buried a lot of things; mice, baby birds, a few voles, two cats and one rabbit. Even a stick insect on one memorable occasion. From our (thankfully very long lived) household pets to the not uncommon little bodies we found in our garden, my sisters and I gave everything we found that had gasped its last a proper funeral.

We’d have a procession down the garden carrying the little body on a bin lid, often clothed in full regalia of flowers and fancy dress. There would be songs, eulogies and occasionally a full Egyptian Book of the Dead style set of plasticine burial ornaments. Anything that died in our domain got a good send-off and a proper coffin.

I don’t tell this story as nostalgia for the lengths children had to go to for entertainment before the internet. But because I recently realised that anyone who moved into our house years later and dug in the garden probably wondered why plastic boxes kept popping up with every shovel-full.

Because each coffin was a plastic container. Often old food containers, or pots the plasticine itself had come in. And once, my mum’s best Tupperware. And of course, whilst the poor critters themselves have long since rotted (except perhaps the one in Tupperware) the coffins haven’t. Many of them will outlast you and I. In our mountainous landfills, in our oceans, and in my old back garden – our plastic waste will live for between 450 and 1,000 years.

And that’s the problem with modern waste. It just doesn’t die. Before industrialisation most things human beings used were, or had been, alive. All of our food, animal skins for warmth, silks, cottons and leathers, the wood and grasses for buildings and furniture, and even our travel, was powered by life – horses, mules and the like. Our stone, clay, and metal didn’t live, but it did weather, wear down and rust without constant attention. Daily life was a fight against entropy's desire to break down life. And the food waste, broken wooden plates, bones, horse dung and even human bodies all naturally, and swiftly, made their way back into nature. Life and death, use and waste.

Then we invented things that didn’t die. Entropy will get them in the end, just like entropy will eventually get even our sun itself. But in terms of the biosphere, we’ve created a zombie apocalypse of stuff. Plastics are the obvious example; a human invented wrapping which emulates the job of an orange peel or coconut shell. But if you chuck a peel or shell into the sea then it’s rotting will be an essential contribution to marine life. Throw a plastic bottle the same way, and nothing. It never lived, so it can’t die or add its nutrients to the life around it. Death of course is a natural part of life. When a tree sheds its leaves, or even falls in a storm, a veritable cornucopia of life springs from it.

But we humans have created near immortality, not for ourselves, but for our supermarket food wrappings.

The great problem with inventing un-killable stuff is that our millennia-old mental programming just can’t keep up. Deep inside us we believe that stuff which has been used up, broken and done with should be dead. And dead things rot and so can be simply dumped back into nature. We never learnt to live with the un-living. You can’t litter with an orange peel thrown into the bushes in a forest. The circle of life will take care of it. And that deep vestigial heuristic is hard to overcome. Although overcome it we must if our waste problem is to be solved. Otherwise our deathless stuff will kill us. Armies of the zombie materials are already choking the life out of our oceans and wild spaces. With up to 12 million tonnes of plastic washed ashore each year. Our zombie stuff is crawling back up to get us.

We humans have created near immortality, not for ourselves, but for our supermarket food wrappings.

I believe the story of life and death might help. We already have myths almost as old as our neural programming about the undead. Stories of vampires, the manananggal and jiangshi haunt our nightmares in cultures across the globe. Humanity is familiar with our own creations that can’t be killed, of the immortals. And our stories tell us that you don’t just bury a vampire, because it will rise again, just like a discarded bottle bobbing to the ocean’s surface. There are rituals and rites for truly killing off those things which just won’t die.

We must save ourselves from our immortal stuff. Keep it young and helpful. Use and reuse or artificially break it down in a rite of recycling that mirrors what nature used to do for free. We must learn new rituals of protection against our undead plastics. Treat every recycling bin as a supernatural amulet. Teach our children the difference between a dead peeling and an undying wrapper. Remember to fear that which will not die.

Otherwise, even though we stuff it with garlic, cut its head off and bury it in the garden, our stuff will rise again.

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