An historical period characterised by the use of plastic and ecological collapse
Today’s newsletter is about an eventual societal collapse due to a plastic (and economic) cataclysm, and how life sciences (Scientists Used AI to Create an Enzyme That Breaks Down Plastic in a Week Instead of a Century) might help us in the future.
The scientific name for the human species Homo sapiens is Latin for “wise man”. It comes from the Latin homō (genitive hominis), meaning “human being”, and sapiēns, meaning “discerning, wise and sensible”.
The subspecies name Homo sapiens sapiens is sometimes used informally to indicate “anatomically modern humans”. This is to distinguish us from other “discerning, wise and sensible” hominis like H. sapiens neanderthalensis or H. sapiens rhodesiensis.
The way things are going, one would expect a next subspecies of H. sapiens named as H. sapiens digitals or H. sapiens silicons. But contrary to the initial expectations we’re gradually transforming to a new and unpredictable subspecies. 🆘
Textbooks from the future may contain chapters on the Homo sapiens plasticus — more commonly known as The Plastic People.
The Plastic Age began at the outset of the 21st century and the Plastic People were the subspecies that dominated the fourth phase in the development of material culture on this planet.
The period starting from around 2020 is referred to as the Early Plastic Age. At this time, the Homo sapiens plasticus across the world were producing an estimated 300 millions tonnes of plastic every year, 50% of which was for single-use purposes. Of this, H. sapiens plasticus were dumping around 8 million tonnes of plastic into their own oceans every year.
As a matter of fact, plastic was so pervasive during the 21st century that it often made its way into diets. For example, during the 2020s, plastic embedded in ordinary food (such as honey, sugar, rice, pasta, bread, milk, toothpaste, toothbrushes, chicken gizzards etc) meant people would consume roughly 5 grams of plastic each week. This comes to about 250 grams per year or more than a half-pound of plastic every 12 months.
The average life expectancy in the Early Plastic Age was 79 years. From this we can calculate the cumulative consumption of plastic within one lifetime: 20 kg of plastic on average. That’s more plastic than two mobile recycling bins, without accounting for plastic ingestion through respiration. In fact, not only did the Plastic People eat and drink plastic particles; they would actually breath them in as well.
But what is plastic and how did the Plastic Age begin?
Pre-Plastic Age (1950–2020 CE). The world’s first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland using phenol and formaldehyde.
Plastic can be made from a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organics. These materials make plastic malleable, which means it can moulded into solid objects of various shapes. That’s one of the main features of plastic: it doesn’t have any specific shape or properties of its own, so one can impart to it any properties they want, depending on the purpose.
The 20th century is often called the “plastic innovation period”. During this time, cellophane, PVC, neoprene, polystyrene, nylon, PET, polyester, polypropylene and other types of plastics were invented (timeline of plastic development).
However it was the Second World War that necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the US. In particular, a synthetic silk called nylon was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armour, helmet liners, and more. Plexiglass provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows.
In total, plastic production in the US increased by 300% during World War II.
The surge in plastic production continued after the war ended. In product after product, and market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials. It took the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture. In 1965, Swedish company Celloplast obtained a U.S. patent for the idea that was later called “the T-shirt plastic bag”. This bag became wildly popular, and was universally used in grocery stores and other shopping spaces.
But, and this is a big but, the accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans — first observed in the 1960s — made observers back then think almost of a very dystopian vision for the future of H. sapiens. Probably, Homo sapiens plasticus emerged as an idea back in the 1960s, only to become sixty years later the predominant subspecies of H. sapiens during the Plastic Age.
Humans didn’t stop producing plastics though. As a matter of fact, they did exactly the opposite.
Plastic was soon being used for everything from soft-drink bottles and containers for food, to dish-washing and laundry detergent, and in general all the essential components used everywhere. And then, after so many years of producing plastics…the problem started to “accumulate”.
Since the vast majority of plastics were just organic polymers formed from chains of carbon atoms — ‘pure’ or with the addition of oxygen, nitrogen, or sulphur — the plastics started to break down into microplastics that eventually went through further degradation. But they didn’t vanish forever: with plastics, there’s a point when disintegration just stops.
Silently, these microplastics started contaminating earth. Back then no-one knew that what have started as a multi-billion dollar global plastic market (worth $1.1 trillion 💶 in 2016) would eventually trigger a major economic collapse.
And that — the microplastic contamination of earth — was the beginning of the Plastic Age.
Early Plastic Age (2020–2100 CE). What do toothpaste, oil rigs, and a new dress have in common? Although very different in nature, all three of these things probably shed microplastics.
Microplastics are minuscule pieces of plastic — starting around 5 millimetres in length, but going all the way to 100 nanometres for so-called nanoplastic. There are two ways microplastics can form. Primary microplastics were manufactured that way, to take care of things like enhancing texture in exfoliating and personal care products. They would readily move through water filtration systems and end up in oceans, lakes and other bodies of water.
Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, formed when larger plastics are broken down by wind, waves or ultraviolet rays from the sun. Many of the clothes humans were buying back then, for example, were made of synthetic plastic fibres. These fibres would fall off very easily: up to 700,000 fibres could be shed during a single wash.
Ironically, the fashion industry 👗👠👖👔👚👕 was also the second-largest consumer of water in the Plastic Age, using up some of the water and polluting the rest.
Digital forensic experts 🕵🏻 have discovered old legal records, suggesting that the oil and gas industry was under investigation back then. They were found to be using products with intentionally added microplastics, which helped adjust the viscosity of some materials, but would eventually further pollute the planet’s oceans. The European Commission, a supranational administrative organisation of that time, wanted to restrict such particles in the oil and gas industry. However, they didn’t have enough clout to make the oil and gas industry listen.
Eventually, microplastic pollution started to rain down on city dwellers. The city of London had the highest levels yet recorded: the rate of microplastic deposition there was 20 times higher than in Dongguan, China; 7 times higher than in Paris, and nearly 3 times higher than Hamburg, Germany.
While it was raining microplastics everywhere (as well as raining cats and dogs 💥⛈🌩⚡️🌪🌬 because of climate change) a study later revealed that microplastics ending up in the soil were very harmful to worms, causing them to lose weight. Earthworms are an important part of farming as they help boost the nutrients found in the soil — so this latest form of plastic pollution was particularly bad news for farmers, agriculture and crop production. Yes, biblical famine was back.
When finally humans realised what has happened, it was too late for them to do anything. The early Plastic Age had just begun and Homo sapiens plasticus were to face a new and very challenging period.
Intermediate and Late Plastic Age (2100–2300 CE). During this period, humanity was divided between those who wanted a plastic-free world, and those who just wanted their ‘economy’ 💳 to be doing well.
And then something very strange happened in the 2100s.
People started getting sick and sicker 🤒 and dying ☠ from common viruses, while humanity was in a constant state of pandemic. At the same time, they were also reeling from unprecedented famine.
Chronic exposure to plastic, neglected for almost a century, had brought about many changes — changes that one would never imagine from using plastic in small amounts.
The famines was partly caused by concentration of mercury in the oceans; probably three or four times higher than it is today. Mercury in the ocean mutates into methylmercury: an organic form of mercury, which is far more dangerous because it easily concentrates during its journey up the food chain.
Heavy metal toxins naturally cling to plastic in the water because plastic has a negative charge and mercury a positive one, so the two attract.
This process created toxic food consumed by fish 🐟🐠🐡🐬🐳🐋. And thus, the Plastic People soon found methylmercury coming to their dinner plate from the marine ecosystem’s smallest organisms — phytoplankton and zooplankton —to fish to humans. Ocean plastic pollution was a powerful toxic avenue to neurologic toxins in the human brain.
While nanoplastics were moving up the aquatic food chain they were also absorbed by into the brains of other predators, affecting their ability to hunt and eventually disrupting entire marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
And that created strange new ecosystems that people weren’t prepared for…
But the problem soon became bigger.
Like all pathogens, bacteria and fungi tend to grow on plastic waste. It is suggested that plastic litter contributed to the spread of pathogens, most notably in the epidemic of 2038😷, but also in later incidents.
The deadliest effect, however, was that of altering a crucial existing ecosystem: the human microbiome (Poop tech and gut feelings, Startups and Gut Microbiome: From toilet paper to AI).
The pre-plastic human microbiome consisted of a dynamic multispecies community of microbes, that worked in tandem with the body to digest food, regulate body temperature and other parameters, and, last but not the least, keeping the immune system strong and ready to fight predators.
Usually, when a body detects foreign substances the immune system is activated. But their immune systems weren’t designed to tackle non-biodegradable plastic intruders. Thus, plastic would simply accumulate in body tissues, likely causing chronic inflammation and increased risk of neuroplasia (Cancer and AI Startups). In addition to this, plastic lodged within the body would release thousands of hormone-disrupting chemicals.
All these disturbances had their impact on the intestine, home to the vast majority of resident microbes. This so-called dysbiosis interfered with the host immune system, triggering the onset of pathogenic infections and chronic diseases.
Post-Plastic Age (2300 CE-Present). Millions of Plastic People died back then as an indirect result of the plastic pollution. It promoted an epidemic of autoimmune diseases, infections, chronic inflammation and cancer.
Eventually, however, it led to the survival of “the most plastic” individuals: that is people more capable of detoxifying themselves from plastics. This also led to the post-Plastic Age, when humans finally learnt to deal with microplastics.
It was a group of lucky scientists (with the help of AI🤖) that eventually and accidentally created a mutant enzyme that broke down plastic (Scientists Used AI to Create an Enzyme That Breaks Down Plastic in a Week Instead of a Century).
Usually, the enzymes that break down plastic can be found in naturally-occurring bacteria, but they only do their plastic-eating work in highly specific temperature and pH environments (and it take ages for them to eat plastic). But our lucky friends back then (and their ML algorithm) managed to find an enzyme (the FAST-PETase guy), that was able to break down 51 different varieties of plastic in non-specific temperature and pH conditions, and completely eat the plastic in less than eight days.
Finally, the salvation of the human species had finally arrived.
Soon, humanity started to mass-produce these plastic-eating bacteria, but in order for the humanity to survive they had to give up all kind of plastic objects…since the new bacteria would eat all the plastic on earth.
In fact, the bacteria did their job, spreading like wildfire across the Earth 🌍🌎🌏 until there was not a scrap of plastic left to eat.
But remember: it is not the survival of the richest or the smartest that nature has in mind, but the survival of the fittest. 👨👨👦👦👨👨👦👩👩👧👦👨👩👧👧👨👩👧👪👨👩👦👦👩👩👧👩👩👧👧👨👨👧👦👨👨👧👩👩👦👦👩👩👦👨👩👧👦
For that reason the Late Plastic Age was also characterised by a global economic turmoil and social restructuring, more likely for everyone.
So, while plastic-eating bacteria were doing their job, nature itself was taking care the biggest of all its problems: the greedy among the Homo sapiens plasticus.
To avoid a similar future of ecological collapse we must all act now to stop the world from turning dystopian.
Our policy-makers must focus on re-establishing trust in governance, improving the accountability of institutions and leaders. And right now, trust in our governments is at a low. So low, that our real problem is not to produce enough bacteria to eat our plastics, our real problem is to find real leaders for a post-capitalist economy. An economy that is going to be organised around human well-being and ecological stability, rather than around the perpetual accumulation of capital.
Eventually, as we go forward as a society looking to avoid the dystopian future of a “plastic apocalypse” — knocking at our doors — more and more lists on how to detox our home and ourselves from plastics will become mainstream. And I guess that new age startups and wellness centres, offering total-body microplastic cleansing, will certainly arise at some point.
Thank you for reading 💙
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