CAPE TOWN – Plastic sits at the vulnerable crossroads of our common industrial past, the querulous present and an uncertain future. In respect of its past or in this case the history of its chequered footprint, notwithstanding its service to mankind, plastic has borne most of the brunt of condemnation for the state of the global environment.
While the article intends to focus on plastic’s present mission, its future is patently uncertain. Its future and that of the Earth-dwellers it serves, is so uncertain to the extent that D-Day for the rest of us may already be here. It may announce gradually or in stealth. All we need to do is to pay attention.
Plastic has found reach in our scientific odyssey and along the way has patiently cultured a lot of depth in the human psyche as it strives to define how to shape the commercial needs of our everyday life.
The extent to which modern livelihood is defined by plastic can be measured by the dependency of the human condition to the versatility of plastic, making the fate of the two inextricably intertwined.
While man is in complete denial, plastic knows full well that there could be no plastic without modern man, and that in equal measure there could be no modern man or his vacuous civility without plastic. The demise of one, gradually or suddenly, is bound to abruptly curtail the life of the other. But that has been fairly predictable. In its devious schemes, plastic hatched a perfect plot.
After a long battle, we have reached a critical tipping point. Modern man and his civilisation is already on his way out, only to be replaced by a higher order of half-man and half-machine. In the age of artificial intelligence, the plastic civilisation of modern man shall regrettably be replaced by robots, made out of plastic.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or as it is known by its shorthand endearment, 4IR, tends to think of itself as a facilitator of progress. Never for once has it conceded to the possibility that everything in its envisioned future shall be made of plastic by plastic machines and may unwittingly forever alter the cognitive construct of the biblical man.
In Sweden, a rudimentary version of a bionic man has suddenly emerged, embedded with plastic chips under the skin, possibly for communication or for recognition by automated banking facilities and workplace computer logins. A few versions of upgrades later, we can confirm that the aliens are not green one-eyed extra-terrestrials flying from outer space. They never left. They have been here all along rehearsing on sleek plastic moves.
The solutions sought must in earnest commence from the honesty of the definition of the problem. Or in the parlance of the sages, from the intellectual dishonesty of modern man.
Garbage is not a plastic problem, whether at street corners, landfills or floating around the vast, vast ocean waters. It is a social problem. It is admittedly a problem of private human behaviour refusing to own up to their public responsibility.
In an article quoted in Engineering News, Anton Hanekom was emphatic. "We should declare war on pollution - not on plastic."
Across the evolutionary progression of human development since the days of the primordial soup, no relationship has ever found so much convergence of purpose, dangerous even. So dangerous is this chemical mix of man and plastic that its toxicity has metastasised to all areas of human endeavour.
The ultimate battle of survival shall be between man and his nemesis, plastic! One must die. At this point, plastic is winning.
Securing itself pole position, it has ensured that whatever policy options are pursued, none should replace it.
True to form, the front end of the popular endeavour is focused not at replacing plastic, but at finding different and more morally and sustainable sources.
To South Africa's advantage, it is already in the forefront of producing bioplastics. South Africa knows we are at the most advanced stage of producing plasticised human machines.
Plastic robots assisted by Artificial Intelligence will negotiate their way into human routines so keenly that Siri might be a perfect-looking lonely girl at an upmarket bar on Friday evening.
The material benefits of this hydrocarbon derivative are variegated, fairly dispersed and scientifically calculable, notwithstanding the controversy about its abuses by humans post its known or rehearsed utility. And in great irony, as we prepare to abandon the proprietary uses of fiat paper currency, we are in full mode in transition to plastic money.
Whether in transport, utilities of convenience, artefacts of warfare or in computer equipment including apparel, there is no gainsaying the reach of plastic as it forges regardless to accomplish its mission in the modern aeon. Yet, discarded plastic in its current construct stands the opportunity to provide us with diesel, petrol, jet fuel and other useful liquefied chemical complexes which would continue to be relevant for our mobile condition.
Advanced technologies renowned for conversion of plastic manufacture pellets that could be mixed with asphalt to construct far more durable tarmacs. And where it is not put to use for such purpose, it can be reassigned to incinerators to provide a sustained heat energy vortex.
It is an advantage requiring that no one has to dig the earth or scrounge for the resource that begets plastic. Daan du Toit, the deputy director-general of International Co-operation at the Department of Science and Innovation is also quoted in the same Engineering News as saying that the concept of a "circular economy is one in which waste is seen as a valuable resource to be kept in the value chain in order to get the maximum utility out of the source material".
Don’t get me wrong. There is no intention to hold court for the sordid past of plastic, nor to exculpate the dereliction of care by its inventors and users alike.
It is the present relationship which is important, paying particular heed to the undeniable existentialist reality of plastic. It is the present relationship between humans and plastic which is in danger of an irretrievable breakdown.
There is enough plastic floating the oceans which could feed our common conversion ambitions. And that is a discussion for a completely different time and context.
The point to be made, however, is that the final stages of the present relationship is bound to be defined by the complexities of humans in transition on the one hand, and that of used plastic lying around everywhere.
It is a race to the finish. Either we outrun plastic to the finish line, or plastic would, in glitzy or ersatz style, outrun us to the end of time. But no matter the winner, I am inclined to believe that both of us are bound to perish just around the same time.
The late inimitable and legendary comedian George Carlin once mused: "Why are we here?" But knowing our intellectual dishonesty, he didn’t wait for our answer. He proffered it himself, cryptic and prophetic
Ambassador Bheki Gila is a barrister-at-law. The views expressed here are his own.