Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but breaks down into micro plastics that swirl together into a toxic soup in the ocean’s gyres. During this journey, larger plastic pieces are mistaken as food by birds, whales, and turtles, and, as the plastic continues to break down, smaller animals such as fish consume it. Researchers have documented at least 200 species that have ingested plastic, creating another avenue for dangerous chemicals like Bisphenol A to enter the food chain. If the adage “you are what you eat” is true, then Norman Mailer is correct that “our bodies, our skeletons, will be replaced with plastic.” In his 1983 interview with Robert Begiebing, Mailer highlighted the morbid life of plastic, calling it the excrement of oil and a “malign force…that is the social equivalent of cancer.” He said plastic “infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis. It gets into every single pore of productive life.”
Since the 1950s, we have manufactured 9.1 billion tons of plastic. Of this figure, 5.5 billion tons remain in the environment, with the most impact to the ocean, where 8 million tons of plastic are dumped every year. If plastic manufacturing remains at current rates, then by 2050 “the ocean will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish”. While recycling is perhaps the most effective way to keep plastic out of the environment, only 9% of manufactured plastic has been recycled. And recycling, like all consumer-related activity, is influenced by market forces. In 2016, oil prices dropped and so did the price of plastic, making it cheaper to manufacturer new plastic bottles than bottles from recycled plastic. With China’s recent import ban on 24 recycled materials such as soda bottles, it is possible many plastics that would normally be recycled will be destined for the garbage heap.
And while plastic’s indestructibleness cause significant environmental destruction, there is also a social cost to plastic. On one level, plastic is too sanitized—an equivalent to political correctness. Mailer explains, “Nobody has ever been nourished by plastic. It’s functional. It’s the spiritual equivalent of political correctness. It’s functional. It serves a purpose, and the cost of serving this purpose is enormous.” On another level, plastic—the excrement of oil—is dirty. As Ira Wells notes in Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism, “Mailer’s problem with plastic is not that it is too clean but that it’s inherently dirty. Humanity’s relentless drive toward efficiency—to make even our byproducts productive, to make our waste do some kind of work for us—has led to the metastasization of a kind of shitty totalitarianism, a hyperrational world in which everything now comes packaged in a film of excrement.”