To consider this reality is to glimpse a broader truth that our civilization, our way of life, is poisoning us. There is a strange psychic logic at work here; in filling the oceans with the plastic detritus of our purchases, in carelessly disposing of the evidence of our own inexhaustible consumer desires, we have been engaging in something like a process of repression. And, as Freud insisted, the elements of experience that we repress — memories, impressions, fantasies — remain “virtually immortal; after the passage of decades they behave as though they had just occurred.” This psychic material, “unalterable by time,” was fated to return, and to work its poison on our lives.
Is this not what is going on with microplastics? The whole point of plastic, after all, is that it’s virtually immortal. From the moment it became a feature of mass-produced consumer products, between First and Second World Wars, its success as a material has always been inextricable from the ease with which it can be created, and from its extreme durability. What’s most useful about it is precisely what makes it such a problem. And we keep making more of the stuff, year after year, decade after decade. Consider this fact: of all the plastic created, since mass production began, more than half of it has been produced since 2000. We can throw it away, we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re “recycling” it, but it will not absent itself. It will show up again, in the food we eat and the water we drink. It will haunt the milk that infants suckle from their mothers’ breasts. Like a repressed memory, it remains, unalterable by time.
Writing in the 1950s, as mass-produced plastic was coming to define material culture in the West, the French philosopher Roland Barthes saw the advent of this “magical” stuff effecting a shift in our relationship to nature. “The hierarchy of substances,” he wrote, “is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.”
To pay attention to our surroundings is to become aware of how right Barthes was. As I type these words, my fingertips are pressing down on the plastic keys of my laptop; the seat I’m sitting on is cushioned with some kind of faux-leather-effect polymer; even the gentle ambient music I’m listening to as I write is being pumped directly to my cochleas by way of plastic Bluetooth earphones. These things may not be a particularly serious immediate source of microplastics. But some time after they reach the end of their usefulness, you and I may wind up consuming them as tiny fragments in the water supply. In the ocean, polymers contained in paint are the largest source of these particles, while on land, dust from tires, and tiny plastic fibers from things like carpets and clothing, are among the main contributors.
In 2019, a study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that the average person may be consuming as much as five grams of plastic every week — the equivalent, as the report’s authors put it, of an entire credit card. The wording was somewhat vague; if we may be consuming the equivalent of a credit card, we can assume that we may equally be consuming much less. But the report was widely circulated in the media, and its startling claims captured an anxious public imagination. The choice of the credit card as an image had some role to play here; the idea that we are eating our own purchasing power, that we might be poisoning ourselves with our insistent consumerism, burrows into the unconscious like a surrealist conceit. When I think of it, I can’t help picturing myself putting my Visa card in a blender and adding it to a smoothie.