Ingrid Sinclair is the Online Content Executive at the Two Oceans Aquarium - she manages the Aquarium's digital portfolio - and she wrote this blog post as part of the assignment work for the Master of Philosophy degree that she is working towards with the Environmental Humanities South programme at the University of Cape Town.

So what is a hyperobject anyway?

  • An object with reach so wide and so far, that it seems there is nowhere that it hasn’t been.
  • A thing so ubiquitous that it’s rendered invisible.
  • An item out of time and space, immortal, immutable.

Timothy Morton could have been describing a black hole, an oil field, or God. He was most certainly describing plastic.

Plastic is present from Arctic ice sheets to Antarctic coasts, on beaches, on sidewalks, in landfills and in deep-sea gyres. The keyboard I’m typing on, the armrests of the chair I’m sitting in, the modem next to me, the laminated map on the wall – all plastic. Plastic’s gone to the moon – Neil Armstrong’s suit was made of plastic back in the ’60s, and there’s a 3-D printer at the International Space Station today.

From land to sea, contribution of coastal regions to the five gyres and other accumulation zones 

The woman walking outside may have plastic breasts, the man perhaps an artificial polyester vein. The milk is in a recyclable plastic bottle, the broccoli in a non-recyclable plastic bag. And those are just the intentional iterations. Plastic has been found in table salt, in fish guts and up turtles’ noses.

An olive ridley turtle has a straw removed from its nose

Plastic doesn’t look like any one thing; it looks like every thing, and so it is hidden in plain sight. It’s only about 120 years old, but plastic colonised Planet Earth in record time. The plastic industry’s output doubles every decade, and today uses 8% of global oil extraction. Every plastic wrapper, every straw, every bottle top and washed-up ear bud represents a tiny, inert bit of fossil fuel. Here, the past is fixed in its plastic incarnation.

Above: Global plastic production. Image courtesy GRID-Arendal and Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni

As for the future, there’s no consensus as to how long it will take for plastic to degrade in the environment. 100 years? 500 years? 1 000 years? Could be, depending on who you ask or, say, on the weather. Plastic photo-degrades – breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces due to UV exposure until, eventually, it’s small enough for plankton to consume. “Plastic has no end-game,” as Charles Moore, the man who discovered the North Pacific “garbage island”, said.

Even that word, “plastic”, is more than the sum of its functions. Deriving from the Greek plastikos, meaning to mould or form, plastic is not only a noun, but an adverb and an adjective too. Not to mention its molecular structure, which is basically just repetitions of itself, double helixes genetically hardwired to perform any job humans can think of, and infinitely more besides.

When it’s not starving animals to death, plastic plays host to microorganisms. Its surface repels water, which makes it ripe for biofilms, which in turn support a range of metabolic activities. Plastic also floats, so it can transport hangers-on, typically bacteria and algae, very far, very fast. Some plastic-bound bacteria spread diseases like cholera; others glow and attract fish, which eat the bacteria that live on the plastic, which then feed from the stomachs of the fish. Some plastics can kill bacteria, while some bacteria can eat plastic. Then there’s the Amazonian plastic-eating mushroom, which can survive on polyurethane in oxygen-free environments, no less.

A world without plastic is an impossibility. Trying to enact this impossibility has become a public performance piece, a freak show. Attempting it is expensive and a “first-world problem”. As with hyperobjects per se, we can’t always see the ugly flipside of plastic’s pragmatism. Our plastic is carted away from our homes, if we’re lucky; or it’s so small that it washes down a drain. The poor live among it in places we rarely go.

But it is there, all the while, as it always has been, and always will be – out of time and space, immortal, immutable.

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