The reminders of plastic pollution are omnipresent — remnants lie along our highways, within our rainscapes, sedimented in our rivers, and cornered in our vision. Our land and marine “garbage patches,” whether officially designated or happenstance, grow without end. Let’s take a step back from our landfills and look closer to home. Find a nice, sedimented plastic near or in rich, loamy soils. Pulling it up might take some force, as if it were a buried log or mossy rock. Soil and biomass might adhere to it, along with a variety of arthropods and other invertebrates. Studied under a microscope, you might discover a diverse microbial and fungal community. In time, plastic can provide a home for the stages of ecosystem colonization, starting with pioneer species, progressing through transitory communities, and developing into a mature, species-rich community.
But what of the harm caused by plastics — nestlings full of baggy film, turtles strangled with beer rings, fish trapped within nets of trash? If we only got rid of plastic, perhaps we could stop these assaults on nature.
Look around you. Plastic is as much a part of our environment as wood, metal, and asphalt. As you glance around your home, recognize how many things are made of or contain plastic, from your phone case to your clothing, your backpack to your storage bin. Plastic is a wonder material. It can be shaped into any form imaginable and for innumerable applications. It can be flexible or rigid, porous or impermeable, easily malleable yet quickly sets.
So, if we’re not going to get rid of plastic, some of it — no matter how much we reuse or recycle — will end up in nature. It’s buried in ponds, floating in streams, strewn along highways, clogging our gutters. Then, the story goes, it sits there for generations, invulnerable to the elements and time. But return to that sedimented, soily plastic we picked up earlier. Tiny holes might pepper it, packed dirt might spill into it, insects might burrow through it. It may have been there for years, but it certainly hasn’t been invulnerable.
Evidently, even plastic is subject to the forces of nature. Glass shards soften to beads in waves, and so, too, does our wonder material. Soft plastics might break down much faster, tearing into ribbons and slowly whittling away. Harder materials might retain their shape for longer, providing valuable habitats in a world that usually sees them shrinking. You can probably think of other materials that perform in a similar fashion — rocks, logs, sticks, leaves, soil. So why don’t we see sticks clogging the throats of birds, rocks in the guts of mammals?
The answer is two-fold.
First, plastics are less than a hundred years old, far too short a time for ecosystem-level evolutionary changes to occur, especially as the rate of plastic production has exponentially increased. A roly-poly might make a home in a discarded water bottle, but you likely wouldn’t see a lizard or chipmunk do the same.
Second, most of our plastics are designed to do their primary task well, and little beyond that. Yet if we invent a material that can last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, we had best start looking at that long, long lifespan beyond its initial use.
We already see this happening in the rise of compostable and biodegradable plastics. Instead of taking countless generations, these plastics can break down within a few years on their own. DIY communities have simultaneously worked to reshape existing plastic into new forms, providing new uses that can turn a milk carton into a flower planter, a plastic bottle into a bird feeder. Yet not everything can be made of compostable plastics, and even the most ardent DIYer can quickly be overwhelmed. So, what happens when most materials reach the end of their useful life? Landfills, dumps, hidden away from sight. Forgotten, but not gone.
What if there was another way? What if, instead of seeing these materials as destined for the landfill, we envisioned their future without us — a future reclaimed by the Earth?
We would design our materials differently. We would shape them in ways that preserved present functionality while providing future opportunities — punching holes in some, allowing water or soil to sneak in, and shredding others, mixing them with organic matter to provide a substrate for growth. We’d create plastics that strategically break apart or join with other pieces to form rafts for life to grow upon. We’d shape the structures to provide homes; pattern the surfaces for adhesion, attachment, or direction.
The plastics we could do without, we would; the plastics we couldn’t, we’d reshape. We’d get rid of those that clog up our natural world and bring in the ones that allow life to flourish. Trash is only such when it loses all future functionality; when it’s removed from the natural cycles that sustain and rejuvenate.
Plastics are a wonder material for us, so why can’t they be for the rest of this world? Plastics need not harm biodiversity — they can foster it. As long as we see our plastics as waste, we will push that waste upon the natural world. If we see plastics as a gift, we will be more likely to share them with those we love.
About the author
Maximilian Weinhold is a computational neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health and an avid outdoors explorer and wildlife gardener. He received his bachelor’s in science from William & Mary in engineering physics and applied design and psychology, and works to integrate human and natural systems via sustainable materials design and ecological engineering.