The following is an excerpt from Allison Cobb’s forthcoming book on plastic.
I wanted to say something about the lives, but I didn’t know where to start. Then a poem arrived from Harris Schiff called “Money.” (1)
Ok, money. Picture this: oil. It burbles up thick and black, molecules erupting out of lives lived a few hundred million years ago. Then, people. Some arrived in their lives on a spot of earth. Someone cut down trees, tore up plants, scraped bare the dirt. Someone set up a geophone to listen to vibrations in the rock and divine where pools of crude might ooze. Some people in offices made the decisions and paid money to others to do this work in hopes of getting more money back. the ugliest / strongest / horse /
Those they paid for their lives brought a drilling rig with metal teeth to bite down into dirt. They inserted a pipe, and concrete, and chemicals and forced the viscous remains up out of the earth. Or what broke from the rock looked like nothing, the once-living transmuted to gas, a ghost. To capture it, some bones got smashed, blood ran, bodies breathed hard, sucking tiny particles of soot from the diesel machines deep inside spongy lung tissue. you can ride / in this pasture / do you want to /
Some people put the oil or the gas into pipes or in containers on a truck or a ship to a factory. Some others heated it with steam to crack apart the molecules and form new ones—benzene, styrene, propylene, and at the highest temperature, past 1400 degrees, ethylene. Some others put the ethylene in a machine to compress it with three thousand atmospheres. They mixed in other chemicals to bind the molecules, one to the other to form a single long chain, polyethylene, the most common plastic on the planet. Its molecular structure looks like this: it will take you / but it might not / obey you /
The polyethylene flowed from the machine as rice-sized grains, odorless and translucent, warm to the touch. Some people carried the grains over land or over sea to a factory where some people melted the grains and injected the steaming ooze into a mold of this car part—a fender liner—four feet long and curved with a complex, irregular shape to fit the chassis. In the factory, a person, in the living hours of a life, molded thousands of car parts, dwarfed by a beige machine. if you can tame it / you might be in trouble /
At each step, some molecules escaped called “waste.” Some breathed these molecules, they burned the lungs; others swallowed them in clear liquid from the tap. Some molecules floated high into the atmosphere, soaking up heat, bending and vibrating, jostling their neighbors, everybody heating up. Some of the molecules will stay a few hundred years, some a few hundred thousand, just there, molecules out of creatures from an ancient ocean now in the air, holding in heat, fevering the sphere. and where / do you want to go from here /
The car part curves together past and future, not as metaphor. Look: an old ocean, salty and wet, filled with lives feeding off sunlight and one another. One life runs out, it sinks, and another, slow sinking to darkness over years, a few hundred million—who can think them. Ice advances and retreats, more oceans, a few mountains erupt—think of this as film, time lapse, I guess. Then minds come and eyes and ears. Then machines and hands and bodies and trucks and ships and trains and roads and processing plants and factories. Then the instance of this car part’s coming to shape. The person in a life bringing breath and thought and muscle to bear in its creation.
Here it is, the piece itself, its molecules took so much heat and pressure to make they would never form outside a factory. No living entity has the tools to melt these bonds, so they will last, far outlast the bonds among molecules in the person who formed it, in the person who attached it to the vehicle, in the person who drove the vehicle and had some mishap, some accident, some swerving that scraped up the surface of the polyethylene and left it tangled against my fence, folded over, like a wing at my feet. Its bonds will outlast everyone I know or can imagine out into the future. This piece of plastic just like this or worn slowly down into finer and finer bits dispersed throughout earth, fed to an albatross chick out of oceans rising, ice melting, scorched forests turned to desert, desert turned to ocean, lifeless, this molecule with its shape like lightning or a river, a few hundred years, maybe thousands, I touch it, this car part, the future. The past. Its brutal hooves / the subject of this sentence is money / cut welts across the weeping world
1 Harris Schiff, “Money,” One More Beat (Accent Editions, 2012). Lines from the poem appear throughout the section.