Every piece of plastic that’s ever made, still exists. It results in a floating garbage dump in the ocean, full of life. While this (geo)design was never intentional, humans created it. Conceptual material designer Shahar Livne thinks it is time for a more inclusive view on plastic, one that goes beyond the human perspective.
The Pacific Ocean is home to a rich population of animals and plants, big and small. It’s also home to the notorious Great Pacific garbage patch, an island of marine debris and plastic particles that’s about three times the size of France. Some of the plastic particles are less than five millimeters in size and can be more than fifty years old.
The plastisphere—the ecosystems that have evolved to live in human-made plastic environments—could be considered as “industrial ecosystems”. These are ecosystems that couldn’t have evolved without human intervention.
If we would accidentally create a new ecosystem that’s able to flourish and grow in “infected” areas, should we put it to and end?
Let’s take for example, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Here, genetic consequences of radiation in plants and animals were recorded in so-called exclusion zones, during the first year after the accident in 1986. Still, various anomalies (as an effect of radiation), both in and out of the exclusion zone, were reported in experimental research on plants and animals in the area. Whether these anomalies have detrimental biological consequences is still unknown.
Paradoxically, the recovery of affected biota in the exclusion zone was facilitated by the removal of human activities (like agriculture or industry). As a result, many plant and animal populations have been able to grow, within their current environment—this being beneficial for these biota. The exclusion zone turned into a sanctuary for biodiversity, where the effects of new anomalies could be seen as catalysts of evolution.
Ask yourself, if we would accidentally create a new ecosystem that’s able to flourish and grow in “infected” areas, should we put it to and end? As the Chernobyl example illustrates, within infected areas new organisms could arise, in turn causing the ecosystem to adjust itself and to grow dependent—in this case nuclear waste. The same thing could be said about plastic waste.
Plastic might be the newest nutrient within this planet’s ecosystems
According to scientists the effect of this floating plastic dump on the ocean’s ecosystems is poorly understood, particularly the effect of microbial communities that profit from it; the plastics are inhabited, eaten and used as transportation. To “clean up” these plastics, if it were possible, would disrupt and destroy these unique ecosystems that owe their existence to the material. Ecosystems, that in the end might be able to support the initial ecosystems we are trying to save in the first place.
Could it be that this large-scale cleaning project fundamentally misunderstands nature’s way of working? Although it is tempting to think the perfect natural paradise existed, before humans got their hands on it, we need to realize that nature has always been in motion. Nature is a dynamic rather than a static reality. Plastic might be the newest nutrient within this planet’s ecosystems. The only sensible way to think about plastic, is as raw next nature material, waiting for its (symbiotic) counterpart to evolve. Until then, nature will find a way.
Shahar Livne is a conceptual material designer located in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.