Welcome to the Plastisphere

Plastic has infiltrated our planet, but the fight against single-use packaging must continue.

microplastic particles

David Pereiras / EyeEm / Getty Images

We hear a lot about plastic these days – mostly, how terrible it is for the environment and why we need to stop using it for everything. Infrequently do we hear a more nuanced discussion about plastic that acknowledges its deeply embedded presence in our society, and even certain benefits. It is inaccurate to lump all plastics together into one vague category of "bad" and we would do well to differentiate between useful plastics (such as medical devices and equipment) and single-use packaging, which represents about 30% of plastic pollution and is arguably plastic's most damaging form.

These thoughtful observations are offered by Dr. Max Liboiron, assistant professor of geography at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who is known for her anti-colonial approach to science. In a lengthy interview with For The Wild podcast host Ayana Young, Liboiron describes the "plastisphere," where entire communities of organisms have adapted to live on or with plastic, to the point where they're now reliant on it for their survival and their ecosystems cannot be found elsewhere. As disturbing as this is, it's important to realize that plastic is no longer an "us vs. them" discussion because this material has integrated so fully into our world.

Just because it has integrated doesn't mean it belongs, however, and we should keep fighting against plastic being used in illogical ways, namely as disposable packaging. Liboiron would prefer to hear activists calling for the annihilation of packaging, rather than plastic in general. She tells Young,

"If I ran a design class, I would fail the student that turned in a temporary use for the longest-lived material combination ... Under what conditions does it make sense to make some of your shortest-lived commodity objects like packaging out of the longest-lived materials?"

A scary part of the problem is that we know so little about plastic's time scales. All projected estimates for how long plastic will linger in the natural environment are based on speculation. And with fragments being so many different sizes – some shockingly small – it opens the door for different effects on different ecosystems. Once plastic polymers break down, including bioplastics, they release even smaller chains that could be toxic. We just don't know what the long-term impact will be. 

When asked about ocean clean-up efforts, Liboiron is logically dismissive. The most well-known project is Boyan Slat's Cleanup Array, a big broom-like net that captures plastic at sea and returns it to land, but Liboiron points out that this doesn't get at the real problem. The net holes are too big to capture particles that measure 5 millimeters or less, which are the biggest threat to the ocean, and the array is a "plankton-killing machine," severing flagella and impeding their ability to eat and move. Apparently, it also captures larger marine animals.

Then what happens to all the plastic once it's taken back to land? It goes to landfill, but that's just a temporary deferral because "the ocean is downhill from everything." It will go back to sea eventually.

"You try to clean up the biggest thing in the world that's full of some of the smallest things in the world, [and] you immediately have a scale problem. The ocean is too big to clean, my friends. The solution isn't to hang out downstream. It's to go upstream and turn off the tap."

Liboiron uses the overflowing bathtub metaphor: If you walked into your bathroom and saw water pouring out of the tub, would you run to grab a mop or would you turn off the tap first? It makes no sense to start mopping until the flow has stopped, and that is where our innovation and technological solutions should be focused right now.

How does one turn off the tap? First, we need to stop the oil subsidies because virgin plastic is so cheap that there is no incentive to use recycled plastic or seek out alternative or reusable materials. Divestment from fossil fuels is crucial because the raw feedstock of climate change and the raw feedstock of plastics happens to be the same thing. ("Surprise!" Liboiron says.)

Next, we need to move out of consumerism into the collective, mobilizing citizen-driven coalitions to work for change. It's important to start with people who share your concerns. Preach to the choir because the choir is powerful and needs organization. Don't waste your energy on trying to convert or convince people and businesses linked to plastic production.

One example of effective activism is the brand audits conducted by GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Whenever this organization collects plastic litter from shorelines around the world, it publishes the names of the companies responsible for making that litter, thus using public shame to pressure the company to make changes. This is more effective than listing the kinds of plastic found, as scientific studies tend to do. This approach acknowledges "the huge infrastructure behind waste [and] is a way of following it back up the pipe ... That is all you can do."

Manila Bay brand audit
Thousands participate in the Manila Bay clean-up and plastic waste brand audit. Richard Atrero de Guzman/Greenpeace 

Supporting local economies can help. "The more local we become, the less we need disposable plastics," Young says. This makes sense because plastic is usually used to protect consumer goods and imported foods on their long journey to our local communities. If we source more items from within those communities, we'll need less packaging. Liboiron agrees: "The reason plastic is useful is because it extends the shelf life of food. Without plastic you don't have massive global food economies. But is that a bad thing? Maybe we don't need it." It wasn't long ago that our parents and grandparents survived just fine without imported exotic ingredients. 

We can strive to buy different products. Making better consumer choices is both a form of protest and a worthwhile effort to safeguard one's own health. Choosing cleaner, greener products and packaging (e.g. avoiding cans with plastic linings) can drastically reduce one's chemical body burden, but these alternatives are more expensive, which deepens the divide between the haves and the have-nots. It leaves certain demographics more susceptible to harm from plastic chemicals; fetuses, low income households, and people of color tend to carry higher body burdens. As Liboiron says, "You can mitigate [your body burden] with things like money, through certain kinds of consumer choices. But you cannot eliminate it." Broader systemic design changes are still needed.

You can listen to the full conversation, "Reorienting Within a World of Plastic," here. To learn more about Dr. Liboiron's work as an anti-colonial scientist and outspoken environmental activist, visit her website.

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