About 15 days after ending my five-year relationship, a friend invited me to Manhattan to look at resin rings in the first floor quasi-showroom of a cult jewelry brand. We thumbed through brightly coloured costume jewelry and then we shopped for magazines. I bought five. One was about the importance of friendship. “The truth is, none of us do it on our own. Transcendence requires human scaffolding; immortality, a benevolent witness: that fellow traveler holding a lantern in a dark wood, telling us like we are,” wrote Megan O’Grady.
The final stop we made was an Asian grocery store in the Lower East Side, where we ogled at the acrylic Yuzu lemons and fat grapefruits rendered on water bottles, and the omelettes tucked into fluffy white bread, rolled over themselves like clean linen in a cabinet. One of us pointed at a plastic package containing a single, perfect cake, cream spiraling like a nautilus between tufts of green sponge. The cakes were charming in their directness — labeled simply “Matcha wheat” — and left nothing to the imagination through their clear plastic wrappers. We grabbed two, and then we returned to the car, the cakes haphazardly strewn in the centre console to be consumed on the way home.
Buying a single slice of cake wrapped in transparent plastic, so that the image of the cake’s perfection reveals itself on the cash-register conveyor belt or in the palm of my hand, is a distinct type of pleasure. Foremost, single-serve plastic-wrapped snacks indulge the ego, a decadence purchased by myself, for myself — and only myself. I consume them with my eyes before my mouth. This plastic is transparent. In leaving so little to the imagination, it can feel like a promise, the kind so idyllic, so steadfast, no human could ever keep.
I also know, intellectually, that single-serve, single-use plastics are Bad. Plastic is selfish. Plastic doesn’t decompose. This plastic will remain on the planet for much longer than I will. Possibly, it will remain forever. It might end up in the ocean, where it will become incomprehensibly small. These small particles form garbage patches in the ocean, speckled with bottle caps and wrappers that will never rot. They might be consumed by marine animals and enter the food chain, where we will consume it until, eventually, inevitably, it consumes us. Plastic is worse than resilient. It is stubborn. It is immortal. It is immoral. Plastic is a nasty, disgusting habit. Using it as frivolously as possible, in the form of single-serve snacks, makes my consumption that much more gross and entitled.
Importantly and logically, the increase in plastic has always coincided with increased industrialization; both imply efficiency, saving time through streamlining and machinizing. In 1929, the Great Depression began in the United States, demonstrating the fragility and vulnerability of our food systems at the time. The 1940s trended towards convenience, as plastic packaging increased alongside the proliferation of corner stores. The mass hunger experienced during the depression informed the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s, a period of research and technological innovations that transformed agriculture, for better or worse, with the intention of solving hunger worldwide.
In 1970, plastic surpassed wax as the preferred mode of packaging. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic use has increased by 20 times in the past 50 years alone. This increase in plastic has caused some experts to refer to our present as The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The evolution of plastic alongside more efficient food production helped cultivate a fantasy of infinite growth. For a moment, we were positioned to imagine that we could keep making more food and more plastic in endless amounts, to feed a population that seemed to endlessly grow. We didn’t have to or want to think about whether this growth was sustainable or even desirable. This may be why, even though so many of us know that plastic has a negative impact on the planet, we are having a really hard time letting it go.
Abundance is a powerful dream, particularly given the ways the threat of hunger has shaped human history, and so the way plastic appears to enable abundance feeds the pleasure of it all. Mass traumas like the Great Depression reconstitute our precarity, contextualizing our lives through scarcity and stories of times before when people went without. Not to mention that, for as long as humans have eaten, humans have been made sick by food, sometimes fatally.
Any relationship grounded in scarcity and suspicion of contagion is bound to be fraught; food consumption is no exception. Therefore, our impulse towards individually wrapped snacks — contained in a material that circumvents decay by design — reads like a response to generational trauma. After years of collective trauma from hunger and sickness, we have engineered a medium of consumption that forecloses these fears, passed down from generation to generation for the entirety of human history. But, survival shaping or not, plastic’s consequences warrant critical analysis: how would the pleasure of my cake purchases be affected if I was forced to reckon with the consequences; if I was forced to keep the plastic in my home, to look at it everyday, empty, smeared with cream that probably will never grow mold, on my windowsill?
The wheat cake in my palm might then be transformed into something disgusting, the way anything threatens to if it sits still, unchanged, for too long. Plastic exists in distinct opposition to nature, where change is the only constant. Trees spawn leaves, worms forge tunnels through dirt, an apple rots when we toss it out the window, returning to the earth. Plastic refuses change; even when we tear or crumple it, plastic is always plastic. Maybe that also explains why we’re so attached to it, like an anchor in an existence where impermanence feels like a threat instead of just another part of being alive. Some relationships just aren’t meant to last forever.
It will be scary to reimagine a world without plastic, to prioritize degrowth and change in spite of the centuries of hunger and sickness underpinning the development of plastic. The dreams plastic indulges — insularity, individuality, permanence — are dreams we attach to out of fear. But plastic isn’t secure, not really. It isn’t a true resolution. It’s dislodging everything from the ozone layer to the depths of the sea. Transforming our relationship to plastic and single-serve snacks demands a recognition that fear is primarily driving our economic and affective investment in it.
Can we be porous? Can we be imperfect and also exposed? Can we follow the lantern in the dark, trust that there is a way through? Through collectively transcending our attachment to single-serving food wrapped in plastic, and to fear; to our impulse towards certainty and linearity, we can taste freedom. Through ripping open the phantom of a promise we can be free.