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The Rampant Proliferation of Plastic: A Tragedy of the Commons



The rampant proliferation of plastic has far reaching ramifications of which we are just now beginning to understand. In our consumer throw-away world, plastic has become a convenient way to package products, to bring home purchases, or to mold just about anything one could imagine. Its unique formable qualities make it an ideal substance to which we have grown accustom across the globe. Humanity seems to have forgotten that we once lived in an unplasticized world. Current research is beginning to show the dark side of this wonder material. This paper offers an overview of the challenges created due to our dependence on plastic based upon a diverse selection of reading.


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The earth has and continues to recycle and reuse the matter of its body to create more life. In this way, death creates life in a seemingly endless cycle enlivening the entire planetary system. Life eats life to have life. More life has died and been transformed by the forces of the biosphere than is alive right now.

This is staggering and phenomenal to realize each of us who has life right now, regardless of the species, is gifted something very unique and special because we would not exist were it not for every life form who came before, those who shared the air, drank the water, and walked the ground. These complex systems maintaining the health of the whole, such as water, carbon, and life cycles, depend upon a fixed range of criteria to remain stable and life sustaining. Until recently, the planetary systems have functioned automatically keeping themselves within certain parameters optimal for life, as well as absorbing the byproducts of our consumption.


Now that humanity has discovered how to break up the micro building blocks of this existence, we remove copious quantities of the body of the planet and rearrange those very building blocks into “new and improved” ways of molding our perceived needs and wants. One of these new and improved creations is something we now all take for granted as a practical and necessary aspect of our lives. It has helped to spur a revolution of consumer products we endlessly chase while running on our plastic treadmills.


Plastic is perhaps one of humanities most ingenious solutions. One of the many products from the extraction and distillation of crude oil, plastic has become the go-to, form-it-all substance of choice to create a myriad of products we then accumulate in our plastic storage bins. Clear plastic bottles deceive the eyes, filled with seemingly endless clean fresh water while the container holds a tendency to leech compounds used in the manufacturing process into the contents (Wagner, 2009, Mosko, 2004). Less we forget a very important plastic manifestation, thin plastic bags for our shopping convenience. Thank you for purchasing, have a bag! If it can be imagined, chances are somewhere; someone has made it in plastic and worked to convince someone else to buy it.


Upon first glance, this does not seem too noxious. Humanity has been creating storage containers and items made from the earth for eons. It is quite easy to see how we have come to be so dependent on plastic in this age. It seems to have solved so many of our perceived problems. In the 1960s movie the Graduate, Mr. McGuire says to Benjamin, “I just want to say one word to you - just one word. 'Plastics.' There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” (Nichols, 1967).


There is a theory called the Tragedy of the Commons stipulating that individuals will act in detriment to the whole for their own benefit. Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968, “The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is part, suffers” (p. 4).


Our discovery, manufacture, and rampant use of plastic is just such a tragedy. Having been sold its usefulness by mega corporations will little regard for the actual individual, plastic is purchased every second across the world in one form or another. With this rampant use, there has not been any conclusive evidence that it causes no harm. In fact, more and more studies point to long-term dangers associated with it.


It is difficult to know how these plasticized consumer choices will shift the balance for our relatives in the future as those creating the choices now will not be around then. “Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed” (Hardin, 1968, p. 4). To instill knowledge to the succession of generations requires that there is agreement regarding that which is to be passed along. Currently, there is not a consensus as to the detriment of plastics, and even studies showing its harm seem to not to be enough to turn the plastic tide.


The Mac factory installed dictionary defines the noun plastic as a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc., that can be molded into shape while soft and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form. It also defines it as an adjective, a quality something can embody. The very last bullet point in the definition offers, “Biology exhibiting adaptability to change or variety in the environment” (Dictionary). Although this refers to plastic as an adjective demonstrating the qualities of life to bend with the times, given the focus of this paper, life may become far more plastic then we would like to believe as it infiltrates our cells and seas.


The first discovery of plastic was in 1839 and since that time, scientists have been experimenting with oils, breaking them down to find new ways of improving the human condition with cheep energy and mass-produced foods, processed and often packaged with plastic for on-the-go conveniences (Freudenrich, 2007). Plastic is an umbrella term, under which a large variety of densities and pliability exist from ridged and strong such as parts used for automobiles to thin and flexible such as one-use shopping bags. All types are comprised of polymers and phthalates, some are naturally occurring like rubber, but most are man-made.  Polymers are created when various size chains of carbon compounds called monomers are linked together forming an infinite variety of shapes and uses (Freudenrich, 2007). One of polymer’s greatest gifts and longest detriments lie in its ability to withstand time, remaining stable for hundreds if not thousands of years (Haldan, 2010). Eventually the plastic will break down, yet only into smaller and smaller bits of plastic.


In and of themselves, these polymers are relatively inert. Yet, in order for the normally ridged material to take on its more malleable qualities, chemicals called phthalates are added to the polymers. Over the last twenty-five years as more findings show that some phthalate are carcinogenic, these compounds be being studied in greater detail. Reports are finding a variety of other health concerns such as endocrine disruption, reproductive virility, and obesity connected to some of the chemicals. (Kamrin, 2009; Thompson, Moore, vom Saal, & Swan, 2009). There is increasing evidence regarding what these phthalates do to the environment and the billions of life forms, who now, whether by choice or not, cannot live apart from it.


Even with research suggesting its potential harm, our addiction to cheep stuff coupled with the corporations drive for profit will continue to churn out endless plastic products which will sooner or later end up discarded. It is here we see the tragedy of the commons play out. All plastic will end up in the earth eventually. A question becomes what is the dust comprised of, and can life grow and prosper harmoniously from that ground where the plastic collects.


There are two main problems with the rampant use of plastic; the chemicals transferring into the environment and the inability of the planet to decompose the plastics back into the earth from which they originated. Both affect the health of the current populations as well as those who will be given life in the future.


It has been shown that many of these phthalate compounds leech into bottled water, packaged food including canned products, and ultimately the land, water, and air. This infiltration of toxicity begins in the manufacturing processes to the distribution systems then consumption and eventual discard (Halden, 2010; Kamrin, 2009; Koch, & Calafat, 2009; Lu et al., 2009; Mosko, 2004; Univer, Gebrekidan, & Desta, 2012; Wagner, & Oehlmann, 2009; Yang, Yaniger, Jordan, Klein, & Bittner, 2011; Zaman, 2010). Yet, in general, the scientific and regulatory communities have not fully come out against these chemicals due to the fact that many of the tests are done to animals who are administered chemicals in doses far higher than the average person would come into contact (Kamrin, 2009). Despite the harm shown, they argue that there is not enough evidence to conclude overall detriment to the human population. It appears that the benefit of plastic to meet so many needs takes precedence over potential health risks.


In this regard, when it comes to plastic, following the Precautionary Principal would be prudent. This principle ensures that a substance or activity posing a threat to the environment is prevented from adversely affecting the environment, even when there is not conclusive scientific evidence for that particular substance or activity to cause environmental damage (Cameron & Abouchar, 1991).


Even with research, the earth systems are complex, malleable, and constantly shifting, making it difficult to know how these chemicals are currently changing and influencing nature, as well as how they will continue to through the coming ages. The planet is a living laboratory, which has been experimenting with itself over immense time. In as much time in the future, the plastics throughout the biosphere will undoubtedly have been transformed and altered countless times. Yet, here in the immediacy of this currant age and the generations soon to come, we must recognize our collective impact and step outside of our personal desires to focus on and embrace the needs of the collective commons. This recognition must include a deep knowing that all life forms are each essential to the whole.


Humanity has been on an epic quest to discover the meaning of existence. This quest has been grand with amazing discoveries and beauty brought forth. Yet, now is time to recognize that we have stepped outside our bounds as stewards of this land. The breaking apart of the very bonds of the material world has caused the planet to be covered with particles of polymers minute to large, all gathering together in mass in the oceans and lands.


Changing the cultural attitude around the use of plastic is a difficult charge, especially given the magnitude of the corporate force behind all the products and the readily swayed consumers waiting for the latest and greatest product. Cleaning supply companies want to sell their product in plastic. Car companies sell us vehicles with many plastic parts. Processed food manufacturers bring their fare to market all wrapped up nice and tidy in plastic wrapping. Beverage companies use plastic to sell back our water to drink, yet now, though biologically contaminate free, these water now may carry the phthalates from plastic bottle, which is then consumed.


We have all been injected into this plastic world, a world who presents the opportunity to fly across the globe, purchase plastic molded assault riffles, and replacement milk nipples. The truth is that our plastic obsession is clogging the worlds landfills and irrigation channels, creating bacteria-filled stagnate cesspools, which in turn spread ill health to the populations dependent upon the life giving water. A population of ill heath creates cultural atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and survival.

The question is how do we as a species, interacting within this whole chaotic system, choose to redirect our focus to one of life sustaining and nurturing vs. the current life threatening and violent paradigm? How do we as a collective pass this knowledge along to our children in such a way they embrace these teaching, and in turn want to pass it along to the successive generations? These are not easy questions to answer with the simplest of subjects, and to apply them to plastic, a substance of choice worldwide, becomes even more complicated.


When we each act in accordance to our perceived needs without regard for the greater effect upon the whole, we eventually create an endgame situation where the rampant extraction and manufacture of resources for profit of a few dissect the very body upon whom we depend for life. Yet, we all are implicated in letting it happen because, “That’s just he way it is” or “I deserve my product because I worked hard for it!” or “I need my job.”


We have created, and continue to create, a problem of immense proportions simply for the conveniences of this current drive through civilization. Humanity is implicit in leaving much waste for those who are to come and now has the opportunity to be a part of a fledgling awakening of awareness towards our collective impact upon the whole of our biosphere.

Ultimately, humanity will need to recognize that its attempt to mold imagination into a plethora of plastic is undermining the very ability to have an imagination. Plastic has been adopted by this culture so completely that it is ingrained in every aspect of daily life as if it has always been here. The mere thought of living without it now almost seems absurd, yet once upon a time humanity existed for tens of thousands of years or longer without plastic. As Hardin (1968) reminds, “the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed” (pg. 4).


The ancient ancestors left pyramids of stone for our study and contemplation. This current age is leaving plastic for the future ones. Those who have the opportunity for conscious life at that distant point in the future will study our discarded plastic and surely wonder what type of creature would create such waste that the earth is unable to metabolize. The seventh generation is approximately two hundred years from now. As their ancestors, we owe special consideration those who still live in the realm of potentiality and have yet to receive a voice. It is this generation’s responsibility to hold space for them by changing our plastic course and setting into motion a paradigm less dependent upon stuff, and more dependent upon the care we take of those around us.


Is there still time to turn this plasticized tragedy of the commons into a comedy? Time will, as in all things, be the gauge.


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© by K. Indigo Rønlov

Naropa University

Spring 2013


©2018 Sacred Witness /  K. Indigo Rønlov, MA