In a 1970s science-fiction tale set in London, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater, plastics are undergoing a curious transformation. Products made with the novel plastic Aminostyrene, a compound cooked up by scientists that has a molecular structure halfway between protein and polystyrene, are beginning to melt. This material, which makes up degradable bottles as well as “hundreds of products from missiles to toys,” is found to be decaying in strange and uncontrolled ways. At the first signs that material mayhem may be at hand, scientists representing the Aminostyrene company are called out to a disintegrating display at Barratt’s toy store in London. At “The Walk on the Moon” Christmas season exhibit in the store, a replica robot commander of a spaceship, a figure that has been originally made for a cybernetics convention and refashioned with the Aminostyrene material, has begun to disintegrate, as though exposed to extreme heat or a caustic solvent. Liquefying toy robots slump and teeter, crashing down in the exhibit in an early warning of the plastic ruination to come.
Mutant 59, the plastic-eating bacteria, is a figure that embodies the strange and potentially unruly powers of microbes to modify environments on a planetary scale. They work through processes of rapid reproduction and propagation, transport, infiltration, and even contamination. The difference between the plastisphere and mutant 59, despite their apparent similarities, primarily rests in the fact that the microbes of the plastisphere cannot be seen as laboratory escapees; instead, they are organisms that have emerged when the laboratory has been turned inside out (to borrow from Bruno Latour’s notion in his discussion of climate change), so that the world has become the experiment. Our environments are not simply pristine sanctuaries invaded by rogue organisms that have escaped from controlled laboratories. Instead, environments are complex natures and bodies in the making, and plastics are a critical material agent that influences how these natures and bodies evolve and adapt.
Thumbnail image from Le Chant du Styrène, Alain Resnais (1958). Image above from An Ecosystem of Excess catalogue (2014).