Interview with Allison Cobb

Fear, Grief, and Desire Made Visible: Thoughts on plastic and public space

A walking interview with Allison Cobb (and Quincy the dog), March 9, 2014, Mount Tabor Park

Plastic is everywhere, and it lasts forever. Its ubiquity and longevity make plastic perhaps the most visible and concrete manifestation of humanity’s profound effect on the planet. Author and poet Allison Cobb is in the midst of tracking plastic’s intersections with her own life and the lives of others in Plastic: An autobiography. The in-progress book brings to light the “lives behind the plastic—not just the human lives, but all the lives—the bacteria that colonize the plastic bits, the lugworm that eats them, the tiny organisms that died and became the fossil fuels that turned into the plastic, the albatross chick who will be fed the plastic by its parents—and the human lives all along the chain.” In focusing on this revelation of interconnectivity, she is working against global capitalism’s tendency “to erase the lives behind the objects we consume.”

We walked and talked in Mount Tabor Park, near Cobb’s house. As we walked, Cobb often stopped to pick up plastic pieces of trash.


Daniela Molnar: The project that you’re currently working on centers around plastic. My impression is that you’re traveling to different places and looking at the origins of plastic and how plastic affects individuals and society. 

Allison Cobb: Working for Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), my awareness of plastic’s environmental effects was always there. But the thing that sparked my recent interest in plastic was reading about Laysan albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean that are eating plastic. Have you seen Chris Jordan’s photographs of albatross carcasses filled with plastic? They’re haunting. 

I originally read about the first of those albatross chicks to be photographed in the Los Angeles Times back in 2006. It had a piece of plastic from a World War II squadron inside it. I tracked down the photographer who took that photo, and it turned out to be Susan Middleton, who had done photographs for EDF.  I spoke with her, which made me want to trace the story of that piece of plastic. All they knew was that it was stamped with a number of a WWII naval squadron. I ended up researching the captain of one of the planes in that squadron. It turns out that he’s from Mount Angel, Oregon, which is over by Woodburn [about 40 miles south of Portland, Oregon]. He died in WWII but I interviewed his son. 

My plastic research also led to the discovery that early an early form of polyethylene was used in the thermonuclear bomb. I’m from Los Alamos [New Mexico, where the first atomic and thermonuclear bombs were designed], so I started tracing that story, too. 

So I guess I’m looking at where plastic has intersected in my own life and tracing those historical lines forward and backward.

Then I started picking up plastic trash on my daily walks, and one of the things that turned up was a big car part, which has become a central obsession of the book. I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of car it came from and where it might have been made, which is very entertaining because people think that I’m crazy. I’ve spoken with a guy who works at the parts department at Ron Tonkin Honda, and he was able to tell me that the car part came from a 1995 Honda Odyssey, which is the first minivan that Honda built specifically for the American market, and it was built in Japan. So there’s a lot of nice, rich associations with an odyssey. And the piece of plastic that was in the albatross came from a plane that was shot down by a Japanese airplane. All of Japan’s industrial production of cars and planes stems from Japan’s wartime engineering. They transformed that engineering process into the engineering of cars and motorcycles and planes —

Quincy, leave that! There’s some pieces of plastic that I don’t pick up. 

D: Yeah, that’s one. 

A: But I pass that [a used plastic diaper] everyday. 

D: Really? It’s been there for a while?

A: Yeah…. So anyway, the thing that I am exploring is the fact that these pieces of plastic that I pick up on the street have these really long threads that travel the globe and link things that we all toss out and don’t think much about. These remnants have tremendous linkages and I want to try to animate that, make that real. 

Related to the questions around public space that your project is focusing on, there are spots in this neighborhood that are outside of people’s fences that are technically public space but that, in reality, nobody has responsibility for. There’s a side yard at our house that is in that category — it’s a sidewalk right of way but the city never built a sidewalk on it. Our house is right next to a grade school and the kids walk to school across that stretch of yard. We’re responsible for maintaining it, but we haven’t planted it or anything because theoretically the City of Portland could come and say, “We want to build a sidewalk here.” That’s where the car part turned up and I also find a lot of plastic that the kids toss out there. So it’s actually a really small and very close public space that I have an intimate relationship with. 

I visited this place in Hawaii [Kamilo Point] where a lot of trash accumulates on the beach. I thought that this project would be about places in the world where trash accumulates that are remote and hard to get to. But then I had this realization that these places are right here, literally under my nose and I just haven’t been seeing them. And a lot of times they are the public places. 

For a while I was doing portraits of storm drains because storm drains are public spaces, they are a public amenity. Supposedly homeowners are responsible for keeping them clear of debris but people don’t really do that. So storm drains, which are of course directly connected to waterways, are a place where a lot of plastic accumulates.

Many of the storm drains in Portland go to the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant. I spoke to a guy there and he told me “We have really good filters, all the plastic stuff would be caught, it wouldn’t go into the waterway.” I don’t know if that’s really true. 

D: These pieces of plastic that you pick up, how do they fit into your project?

A: I don’t know. [Laughter] I mean, the car part obviously stands out because it’s so big, so it’s this really unwieldy thing I have to deal with. I think in a way it’s a meditative practice that frames and underlies the whole book, but it may not necessarily become part of the book. I think of the book as just one part of what I’m doing. The photos are another part, and the daily practice of picking up plastic is another part. So it may not end up in the material of the book, but they’re part of the living meditation on plastic that I’m doing. 

D: Do you throw the pieces of plastic away?

A: I don’t, I keep them all. They’re accumulating in garbage bags. 

D: How much do you have?

A: It’s kind of interesting — most plastic is not this big [picking up a large piece of plastic debris]. Oh, this is a Honda part, too… So I probably have about two and a half garbage bags full now and I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. [Looking again at the car part] I started trying to figure out what the symbols are on these things. A piece of a bumper of something…. and it has little creatures in it. 

That’s another thing I learned which is so interesting. I had always assumed that plastic had no use for any living creature. It doesn’t break down, they can’t use it for food, it’s this molecular construction that would never happen outside a laboratory — the temperatures and the pressures are too high. But actually, scientists who are studying the little plastic particles in the ocean figured out that they’re being colonized by bacteria. They’re finding bacteria that are land-based attached to these plastic particles. They coined a named for it — the “plastisphere,” like the biosphere. This thin film of life that exists on all these plastic particles in aggregate. Isn’t that amazing?

D: That’s crazy!

A: So actually, these lifeforms, they find a use for anything. 

 The oldest reservoir is up here, if you feel like tackling those stairs [gesturing to a long flight of stairs cut into the hillside]. 

D: Sure. I’m curious about the part of your project in which you’re classifying the pieces of plastic trash that you find, relating each piece to either “fear” “desire” or “grief.” Have you found anything that you feel like doesn’t fit in to those categories?

A: I have a writer friend who is great because she asks me a lot of questions about what I’m doing and challenges me. I told her, “I think you could fully account for the existence of any piece of plastic with these three words.” And so I just decided to test it to see if that was true. Sometimes it’s kind of jokey, but so far it works. They all fit the pieces of plastic in some way. 

The three words I started out with were fear, desire and greed. And then somehow, intuitively, when I went to actually label things, greed turned out to be not quite the right word. I think it’s not elemental enough — it’s an offshoot of the other things. So that’s how I ended up with “grief.” 

Culturally, we create all of these complex social and technical constructs to justify the things that we do. But actually I think that people are motivated by some really basic emotions or drives. I think it’s interesting to strip down to those basic emotions and drives and to just look at it. 

D: You were my introduction to object-oriented ontology and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which encouraged me to consider all lifeforms as animate and interconnected. How do you understand the plastic as part of an ecosystem like this park?

A: Bruno LaTour has this book called We Have Never Been Modern and his thesis in that book is that these dualities like nature versus culture are born of fear of contamination. That in fact, those pristine categories really don’t exist. A lot of the plastic “waste” that gets discarded ends up in places where nobody feels a particular ownership, like a public place. But in fact, it’s continuous with our physical bodies. 90% of Americans have industrial chemicals from plastic in our bloodstream — so we literally are plastic. You can discard something and feel like it’s gone “away” but in fact it’s inside your cells. And it crosses the placental barrier so newborns are born with something like 200 industrial chemicals in their bloodstreams. So there isn’t such a thing as pure. I’m interested in watching it play out, seeing how people try to enforce those categories. 

It’s fundamentally insane, right? To make disposable objects out of a material that never degrades. Why? Why does that happen? It comes back to those basic driving emotions: “grief-fear-desire.” People are motivated by these almost-hidden drives to protect themselves, to stay “pure” or “safe” or “clean.” That leads to things like violence and war and it leads to and is enabled by things like plastic.

When plastic was first being used in consumer items, it had to be promoted as disposable. The American mindset from the Depression and WWII was about saving things, and because plastic was so useful people wanted to save it and reuse it. So there was a big advertising campaign aimed at convincing people that plastic was disposable. And all that’s about capitalist greed, that’s why greed was one of the words. So greed is applicable but, why are people greedy, why do they feel like they need to have unlimited amounts of money or unlimited amounts of goods? It stems from a more basic drive, like fear. I guess it’s Freud, but, everything is fear of death. So maybe fear is actually the most elemental of them all. 

D: So in addition to the fear that underlies plastic, there’s an inherent violence to plastic. 

A: Right. 

D: And there’s all these undercurrents of specific applications of violence like the atomic bomb. 

A: Yes. Our cultural relationship with plastic is driven by violence which is driven by fear — fear of contamination. Particularly with food, it’s about creating a barrier between the food and the rest of the world. But in fact, you’re actually contaminating your food and contaminating your body. 

Mother Jones recently did this great investigative piece about the plastics industry [“The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics” by Mariah Blake, March/April 2014] A few years ago, there was all that news about BPA and how BPA is basically an estrogen mimic and leaches into food. Once people found out about that, there was such a public outcry that retailers voluntarily stopped carrying items like baby bottles made with BPA. But according to Mother Jones, there have been scientific studies showing that every plastic leaches estrogen mimickers. 

D: Regardless of whether it has BPA or not?

A: Yes. Which is is really new and terrifying. And the plastics industry has used not only the same tactics as the tobacco industry in burying that science, but literally the same individuals. Same scientists, same attorneys. So I think eventually twenty or thirty or fifty years from now, we’ll all be horrified that we used plastic technologies in this way, but it’s going to take a while. 

D: Another example of violence and fear in relation to plastic. It seems that the pieces of plastic you’re finding are really kind of like mushrooms, the fruiting body of something that is much larger.

A: I love that, that’s wonderful. 

D: Because the plastic molecules are really everywhere, the pieces of plastic trash are just the more visible evidence. 

A: What a great metaphor. I think of the plastic trash as concrete manifestations that I can touch and live with and obsess over and write about. A concrete manifestation of humans’ relationship to the planet that is so essentially steeped in opposition, in violence. That’s how we end up with things like plutonium and fossil fuels and plastic. All of that.