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Stewart Brand sums up Susan Freinkel's Long Now talk: "What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of," a history of the world before plastic:


“Bakelite was invented in 1907 to replace the beetle excretion called shellac (“It took 16,000 beetles six months to make a pound of shellac.”), and was first used to insulate eletrical wiring. Soon there were sturdy Bakelite radios, telephones, ashtrays, and a thousand other things. The technology democratized consumption, because mass production made former luxury items cheap and attractive. The 1920s and ‘30s were a golden age of plastic innovation, with companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, and I. G. Farben creating hundreds of new varieties of plastic for thrilled consumers. Cellophane became a cult. Nylons became a cult. A plastics trade show in 1946 had 87,000 members of the public lining up to view the wonders. New fabrics came along—Orlon and Dacron—as colorful as the deluge of plastic toys—Barbie, the Frisbee, Hula hoops, and Silly Putty.

“Looking for new markets, the marketers discovered disposability—disposable cups for drink vending machines, disposable diapers (“Said to be responsible for the baby boom“), Bic lighters, soda bottles, medical syringes, and the infinite market of packaging. Americans consume 300 pounds of plastic a year. The variety of plastics we use are a problem for recycling, because they have to be sorted by hand. They all biodegrade eventually, but at varying rates. New bio-based polymers like “corn plastic” and “plant bottles” have less of a carbon footprint, but they biodegrade poorly. Meanwhile, thanks to the efficiencies of fracking, the price of natural gas feedstock is plummeting, and so is the price of plastic manufacture.

What Common Objects Used to Be Made Of

(Image: Plastic Power, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fxtreme's photostream)

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Plastics live forever. Well, that’s not quite true, but a plastic ring or piece of garbage can last for hundreds of years before biodegrading. And much of that plastic ends up in the oceans, where by one estimate there is now more than 300 billion lbs. of plastic waste floating in the water.

Because plastic is so indestructible, it poses a unique threat to marine life. Turtles and fish, dolphins and seabirds can swallow plastic pieces, choking on the garbage. So much plastic has accumulated in the ocean that you can find a Texas-sized patch of the stuff in the North Pacific, concentrated by sea currents. It would take years to clean it all up—and instead, we’re just adding to it every day.

In her photo exhibition Soup, the British photographer Mandy Barker documents plastic debris that’s been salvaged from the sea, transforming marine detritus into the stuff of art. She began working on the project after reading about the Pacific Garbage Patch on the Internet, and started noticing all the trash that would wash up along the beach. “It seems there was more debris, and especially plastic, than there were natural objects,” says Barker. “I wanted to find out why that was.”

Barker received bits of plastics and other trash from beaches around the world, and the result is a kind of collage of the waste we put into the oceans. The photos themselves are beautiful, the plastic bits artfully arranged and shot against a black background. For all their artificiality, they remind me of the images brought back by submarines of weird undersea life, coated in unnatural colors and strange shapes. “I’ve received actual plastic fished out of the sea from a container ship off Alaska,” says Barker. “I was constantly shocked by what I was seeing.”

Barker hopes that her work gives her audience pause as they consider just where their toothbrushes and disposable razors and others shards of the plastic life end up. “Maybe people will think twice before they throw these things away,” she says. We may celebrate Earth Day on April 22, but the oceans—which do cover two thirds of the planet—deserve our protection every day.

Mandy Barker is a British photographer. More of her work can be seen here.

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Then two weeks ago, I returned to Japan. Things hadn't changed too much; little seemed to be rebuilt. But all those spaces were clean and somewhat empty this time.

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It's time once more for a look into the animal kingdom and our interactions with the countless other species that share our planet. Today's photos include a fiery Spanish festival, a frightening encounter with a leopard in India, a flamingo undergoing laser treatment, a new species named in honor of entertainer Beyonce, and the plight of Ukraine's "vodka bears". These images and many others are part of this roundup of animals in the news from recent weeks, seen from the perspectives of their human observers, companions, captors, and caretakers. [42 photos]

A man rides a horse through a bonfire on January 16, 2012 in the small village of San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain. In honor of San Anton, the patron saint of animals, horses are ridden through the bonfires on the night before the official day of honoring animals in Spain. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

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