Daily PlanetWatch for Wednesday, August 28

Thomas Schueneman

Thinking about the latest environmental news headlines from the Daily PlanetWatch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon

Microplastics: come rain down on me

In an article for UPI, Jean Lotus reports that researchers measuring nitrogen falling as acid rain in the mountains of Colorado found something the hadn’t anticipated: plastic.

“It’s raining plastic,” says Greg Wetherbee, a researcher from the Denver-based U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Networks Branch.

A recent USGC report found microplastic fibers in 90 percent of samples taken of rainfall from the foothills west of Denver to “pristine” 10,300-foot mountaintops in Rocky Mountain National Park. "Plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition," Wetherbee says.

Waste plastic is in rivers and oceans, landfills and vacant lots, meadows and mountaintops; it is in the Arctic and the Antarctic, north, south, east and west; it is in the food we eat and the air we breathe; it is now coursing through our veins. It rains down from the sky.

Plastic is everywhere. 

A word of advice, Mr. Braddock

In the 2016 article The Plastics Economy: Thriving in a Plastic World," I suggest that one of the many elements in the 1967 film The Graduate making it a “cultural signpost of a generation and a historical record of the times” was one brief bit of dialog. I’m not referring to “are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?”

Still discussed to this day, it boils down to one word of advice, and goes like this.

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word, are you listening?”

Benjamin Braddock: “Yes, sir”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics”

This brief exchange lent that one word -- plastics -- multiple layers of meaning.

In the article I argue that “for Mr. McGuire, plastics was the future, a straight-line trajectory of growth and prosperity.”

“Earnest young men looking for a promising career in upper-middle-class America, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, would do well to get into plastics. It was the new economy of plastics, and fortunes could be made.

“Half a century on and we live at the apex of Mr. McGuire’s vision of this new economy, endlessly churning out plastic consumer goods destined ultimately as little more than indestructible junk. Buy, use, throw away, repeat. But the magical properties of plastic that make it so ubiquitous also reveal the fundamental weakness of the linear, throw-away culture in which it became the workhorse material it is today.”

Plastic conundrum

The modern world would not exist without plastic. Anyone born during or after the post-war Great Acceleration of the 1950s is surrounded by it.

At a conference I attended in Monterey, California, Dr. Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute, told a group of journalists, scientists, researchers, and NGOs that a world without plastic is “a world I don’t want to live in.”

Warning of the dangers of "ignoring end-of-life scenarios" on our health and economy, Halden says that plastics needs a "new chemistry".

“We have to design a new infrastructure, a ground-up circular economy,” he says.

We don’t want to live in a plastic-free world. Not really. But we can’t live in a world smothered in waste plastic clogging the arteries of the planet. Most of it used once and then discarded, thrown away.

But, of course, there is no "away."

Plastic philosophy

Coming to grips with the dichotomy of plastics informs how we might learn to live in the anthropocene. The challenge is enormous, but only a single step toward finding a new balance with the natural world.

We face many such challenges, the impacts of which typically lay outside our day-to-day powers of perception. Out of sight, out of mind. And slowly the consequences build up to the point that it all comes crashing down.

But the story of human evolution is one of expanding awareness. Faltering and flawed, we grasp bit by bit our place on this planet. Or not. It is a cautionary tale.

We must learn to be at home in anthropocene, not destroy it. Philosophically and practically, there is no return to an imagined, pristine state of nature. 


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