A disposable water bottle these days is an astounding piece of engineering. Of course, these are flimsy, cheap substitutes and almost collapse when the water is gone. But I can look at them as a piece of magic. It is a skin for the water, giving it fixed shape that I can grab and carry with no more volume, weight, or inconvenience than the water itself. Putting skin around water!? Wow! Two hundred years ago, it would have fetched a fortune, seen as wizardry or a gem dropped from heaven. One hundred years ago, it would have hushed the audience even at the Chemistry Society of America.

The bottle is a marvel. And that is because the plastic is a marvel. And the marvel has moved in. Big time.

If we were to make a great fishing line and thread it through every object in this room that is made of the magical substance and then gather a hundred people to stand in the road out there and pull on the line until all the forms in here that contain plastic got yanked out, what a mess it would make! Some of us would be half naked. Do the same with a house, a mall, a school, a business…do it to a whole city, the devastation would be like a Class 5 hurricane.

What’s up. Why all this plastic? Even when we know it is choking the life of the planet. Still out it comes.

“Everyday, in every way, I am growing polymer and polymer.”

I am going to offer now, a different lens on the case. And see it as the natural-but-now-overblown human fascination with forms, with objects, with just plain stuff. It has blocked us from our other fascinations, with things harder to see. With love, with spiritual form, with the light of the mind.

Now, clearly, humans always loved forms, loved objects. We lived and died by them both those of nature and those we made. It’s been going on for 10,000 years. But during any one lifetime, in the older days, those forms didn’t change much in character or type. What you saw as a child was pretty much what you saw in your old age. Leather coats, paper books, wool blankets and shirts, wooden wagon wheels, iron pitch forks and knives. Alcohol. Soap.

Then came plastic.

It came near the start of the most astounding century in earth’s history. If we want a year, let it be 1907. If we want a person, let it be Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland. His birthday is tomorrow (November 14, 1863-1944). Not far from here, in Yonkers, New York, the Belgian-born chemist used the million dollars he had made on an earlier invention in photography to bubble and bake a recipe for what would become the first fully synthetic plastic. He called it Bakelite. Chemists knew it as polyoxy-benzyl-methyl-englycol-anhydride.

Plastics are polymers, which are long molecules, so long they can flex and melt and solidify. The word plasticmeans formative, from Latin and Greekto form. The age-old human ability to form new things—arrow heads from flint, pots from clay, thread from wool—that ability burst forth like water behind a broken dam with the arrival of plastic. With it we learned to make forms that follow the fine contours of imagination.

And with it, we have over the last 100 years become thoroughly soaked in, immersed in forms. Unless you leave, like our daughter has, to a monastery life, it’s hard even to notice how much time and love, a kind of devotion, really, even worship, we pay to the parade of new forms. Whole new types of things. Striking new variations on a theme. It isn’t plastics doing it. We are. We are obsessed with new things.

So, yes, the poor physical globe is dying with wasted polymers. But why have we done that to our home, our fellow beings? Why do we pour the human soul, which is our attention, like a liter of Poland Spring water, into the flimsy bottles of stuff? Why did we fall asleep and so badly forget who we are? Forget our essence as beings of mind stuff. Ancient, open, infinite and beautiful.

I have no handsome answer. Our aging cat now eats whatever we put on his plate and then moans for more just because…because who knows what? He didn’t used to. I don’t expect him to find a way back.


Ted Phelps lives in Valatie, NY and is a frequent “IWOW” writer/performer at Deb Koffman’s Art Space in Housatonic, where he offers short stories, memoirs, poems and essays. Ted is also a visual artist, working often in new digital media (tedphelps.com). A meditation teacher since 1972, he designed the Natural Meditation method presented free online since 2000 at naturalmeditation.org.