Plastic’s Broken Promise

(Photo by Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At Orion Magazine, as part of its series “on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy,” David Farrier reflects on gloves and their medical history, as well as the strange beauty and environmental cost of cast-off plastic gloves — now oft-sighted street detritus that have become a requirement for many to survive amid the pandemic.

In late March, around the same time I first noticed the gloves outside my house, photographer Dan Giannopoulos was pondering how to document life under lockdown. After the order to isolate was issued, he didn’t leave home for several days, and when he finally stepped out his front door he was immediately confronted, like I was, by a lone discarded glove. He noticed more and more as he approached his local shop, and over the next four days—walking for an hour each day within the same one-mile radius of where he lived, in Nottingham—he documented 363 of them.

The human finger is extraordinarily sensitive. One study found that participants could detect a difference of thirteen nanometers (roughly the width of a human hair) between the textures of two surfaces. But unlike wood and stone, which wear their histories on their surfaces, plastic is strangely mute to the touch. There is a subtlety to even the most garish plastic, a kind of discretion, because all plastics decline to speak of their origins. The illusion that even the most ordinary plastic object is somehow out of time, perpetually isolated in its moment of use, is fundamental to its promise to be disposable. History sloughs off their wipe-clean surfaces. The cut-price synthetics that initially flooded postwar American society betrayed this promise when they quickly became discolored and tacky, often leaving behind an oily residue. The more robust plastics that followed gave away nothing of where they came from, and so could easily be taken for granted and cast away. Roland Barthes understood this, when he celebrated plastic’s alchemical promise. “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used,” he wrote in Mythologies. It arrives in the hand as if from a void, to which it returns when we let it go.

Plastic breaks its promise to seal us off from the messiness of life from the very start, dipping our hands in the sumps of oil wells and leaving a trail of chemical fingerprints, but so are its prints all over us.

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