Content type: Essay
Credit: Max Ahluwalia (BSc exchange at Leiden University, 2019-2020)
Year: 2019

In this essay, Max Ahluwalia considers the term plastic human through literature review and critical analysis. It seeks to define the term’s meanings and discuss its implications. The text reflects on the destiny of human evolution following the introduction of plastics.

'It is not the material of plastic which defines the plastic human, but their plasticity and permanence...'
Max Ahluwalia

‘Plastic human’ is a term given to the inevitable product of the evolution of humankind in the era of mass plastic consumption, to a species who creates using natural compounds and processes for unnatural manipulation of the environment.

While the effects of the plastic human are increasingly present, there is currently little awareness and use of the term, even in online discourse. When it is used, it is in a derogatory sense, to describe the appearance of someone who has undergone multiple cosmetic surgeries, for example. Though the insertion of plastics, silicons, and other unnatural materials by means of body-adjustment procedures does contribute to the evolution of the plastic human, they are not uniformly present in humans and are then not a sufficient explanation for the evolution of the plastic human.

Plastic can be described as a synthetic material composed of organic compounds, while plasticity describes the adaptability of an organism to change in its environment. But what is a plastic human?

In are we human? (2016), Colomina and Wigley use the term ‘plastic human’ to suggest the existence of a creature that evolves with its environment. Like the era-specific ‘stone humans’, 'bronze humans’, ‘iron humans’, etc., the plastic human uses plasticity to shape its environment. The plastic human constantly redesigns itself to adapt to its designed world, including pressing for the extinction or evolution of other organisms. Ultimately, the invention of plastic was not necessary for the existence of the plastic human; the plastic human describes the inevitability of the uncategorisable, transforming agents that redesign as much as they are redesigned themselves.

The plastic human can be defined as being a highly versatile creature as it can morph into essentially anything and can adapt to fit any role in an environment. In this interpretation, the plastic human is a creature of self-manipulation, survival and reinvention. By interacting and adapting with the environment through plastic, it changes it. Colomina and Wigley argue that the environment is constantly being redesigned by the plastic human who is mutually being redesigned by the redesigned environment.

In Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures (2015), Heather Davis posits that the plastic human was created following the invention of plastic in 1907, and the effects of the plastic human have only been visible since then. This is based on growing evidence that humans are being changed by their vast use of plastic at a biological level. To understand this interpretation of the term, we must first understand how plastics enter the human body.

Through use and environmental factors, plastic products degrade over time into smaller and smaller pieces. The particles continue to exist but as ‘microplastics’ (pieces of plastic less than five millimetres long that have broken or torn off from larger plastics products). These microplastics often end up in water supplies or waterways by being blown by wind, littering or improper waste disposal, and through drainage systems.

Microplastics are released by activities such as flushing toilet paper, washing off cosmetics, or washing clothes (with the average wash releasing over 800,000 microplastics). Weather conditions and tides then distribute microplastics throughout the world, resulting in the inevitable introduction of plastics into the food chain via bioaccumulation. Furthermore, through natural processes such as evaporation and wind, microplastics from water and land enter the atmosphere.

Humans are exposed to plastic particles through the most basic of activities: drinking, eating, and breathing. It is important to note that the bioaccumulation of plastics in bodies is not exclusive to humans; microplastics affect all living organisms in one way or another. Even in nonliving matter such as rocks, plastic can still intervene in natural processes, such as in the case of plastiglomerates — characterized by the combination of sedimentary rocks, natural debris, molten plastic materials, and other man-made products. The plastic human is unique, however, in that it has designed, and continues to design, the forced adaptation or extinction of other organisms by the creation, distribution, and irresponsible management of plastics.

While many pre-existing ecological communities are negatively affected by the introduction of plastics in their environments, it can also be observed that microplastics have become vessels for biodiverse ecosystems of viruses and bacteria. As communities on these plastics expand into more complex societies, they evolve and mutate as they grow. As microplastics can enter human bodies in several ways, the ultimate development of bacterial systems on these microplastics can then perpetuate the evolution of the plastic human. Now bacterial colonies and plastic humans are distinctive in that their natural and cultural biologies are continually muddled and the concept of a biotic plastic human progresses.

The future plastic human faces many challenges, most importantly reproduction. Plasticizers are byproducts of broken-down plastics and are comprised of chemicals that accumulate and disperse toxins in any environment including the human body, disrupting reproduction for both male and female organisms. These compounds can overproduce estrogen and imitate other hormones, thus ‘queering’ the body and obstructing reproduction. Davis’ feminist perspective shows the plastic human in a new light, in terms of its ability to not only survive but even to thrive without regards to the ‘proper logistics of decay and transformation’.

Will the continual transformation of the plastic human be enough for it to adapt to the accumulation of plastics, even when its own reproduction is inhibited? Davis and Colomina and Wigley all agree that the plastic human has a lifecycle, but disagree on its endpoint. Will this ‘end of life cycle’ be another stage for plastic humans to show their capacity for plasticity and altering their environment or will the plastic human eventually become obsolete, even in its own world and on its own terms?