Plastic land, part 4


Dow’s Polymer Center, known locally as Plant B, consists of fifty distinct plants. In her book Plastic: a toxic love story, Susan Freinkel writes that each plant produces a different plastic resin or chemical ingredient: polyethylene, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polystyrene.

The plastic comes in the form of rice-sized pellets known as “nurdles.” Millions of pounds of nurdles leave the Dow Freeport plant every day, filling up railcar after railcar. The trains take them to trucks or ships, which take them to manufacturing plants across the world.

All those nurdles come back to us as cell phone cases and car parts. Toothbrushes, toy soldiers, and pace makers. Frisbees, fleece, dental floss. Those tiny, flexible tubes that deliver nutrients to premature babies.

But the largest proportion — almost 40% of all plastic — goes into packaging:  grocery bags, milk jugs, blister packs. Stuff made to be thrown out.

The other product that comes from the plants: pollution. The single largest component of chemicals released into the air in Brazoria County in 2012 was ethylene, a raw ingredient of plastic created by heating up oil or natural gas to “crack” apart their molecules.

Dow Chemical accounted for nearly half the ethylene released in Brazoria County. Ethylene is volatile. It reacts readily in the atmosphere to create ozone smog.

During a heat wave in June of 2012, an ozone pollution monitor in Brazoria County hit 136 parts per billion, nearly twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe over the long term. The region has never met the safety standard EPA set in 2008.

The American Medical Association and a bunch of other doctors’ groups have called for that standard to be set even higher, because smog attacks the lungs. It can lead to asthma attacks, and, over time, cause permanent lung damage.

Children are most vulnerable to smog, because they breathe more per pound of body weight than adults do. New science has also found links between ozone and heart attacks and strokes in adults.


But when I visited Melanie Oldham a few weeks ago, she wasn’t thinking about smog. She was worried about chlorine. That’s what she traveled to Houston and waited six hours to speak about to Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Dow recently completed construction of a new “world-scale chlor-alkali facility” in Freeport. The plant creates chlorine by running an electrical current through salt water.

Chlorine is produced in very high volumes in the U.S. for a bunch of industrial purposes, including treating drinking water and creating pesticides and polyvinyl chloride plastic. The trade group EuroChlor has created a lovely chlorine tree showing all its uses.

The problem is that chlorine is also incredibly dangerous. It was used as poison gas in World War I. When a person breathes in chlorine, it breaks down into hydrochloric acid, burning the lungs and causing them to fill with liquid — death by drowning.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report found chlorine among the most dangerous substances to transport. A Dow worker at Freeport died in 2006 when a valve cap blew off, sending chlorine into his face.

Last year Dow announced it is selling off its chlorine plants in Freeport, with a buyer yet to be identified. Among Melanie’s requests to EPA: require the new owner to make chlorine only as needed so it doesn’t have to store large quantities, and transport the chlorine using the safest rail cars available.

At dinner that night, I noticed that Melanie’s black-and-white plaid suit jacket had a rhinestone cross on the back, with angels’ wings above it. I asked her about this later—whether the jacket was supposed to help make her case to the EPA.

But Melanie didn’t have time to discuss fashion with me. She texted that Dow had just published its application for a new ethylene plant at Freeport, its largest ethylene plant anywhere, and her group had thirty days to comment on it.

Plastic land, part 1

The first hint that I was getting close to Freeport was the steam. Big billowing clouds rose into the cold, grey skies above Highway 288 south from Houston.


Then I came over a rise and got a glimpse of it — a vast chemical complex, the largest in North America — less individual facilities than entire landscapes, pipes and towers and stacks smoking and steaming and shooting columns of flame into the sky. This is the land where fossil fuels turn into plastic.


I arrived in the middle of an ice storm — a rare event in this Gulf Coast town, where the average annual temperature is 70°.


Houston had been a tangled mess of accidents and closed roads, the highway south largely deserted. In Freeport, the weather seemed not to have registered. Cars and trucks flowed in and out of factory gates, and the plants hummed on, as they do, twenty-four hours a day, every day. They hummed, literally. A low roar overlaid by a high-pitched machine whine permeated the town.

I veered off the highway and found myself at a gate to Dow Chemical’s Oyster Creek Division.


Aside from manufacturing plants, only two other buildings appeared on the main road past the plant. Eros, a Lovers Boutique and the Eagle’s lodge.



In Freeport, 12,000 people live amidst bays, marshes and bayous at the mouth of the longest river in Texas. The Spanish, who showed up here in the 1500s, called it Los Brazos de Dios, Arms of God. Today it is just the Brazos, pronounced with a flat Texas a and a short o.

Chemical complexes curl around the town to the north and east. Dow arrived first and remains the largest, seven thousand acres of plants producing billions of pounds of chemicals and plastics every year—nearly half the company’s U.S. production. And Dow is expanding, building a chlorine plant, a new “world-scale” propylene plant and increasing capacity at an existing ethylene cracker. This is part of a larger renaissance in the chemical industry across the Gulf, fed by cheap natural gas fracked out of rock.

It was difficult in Freeport to just wander. The roads kept dead ending at factory gates or water. I took another side road and found myself on a narrow gravel drive on top of a levee, no place to turn around, surrounded by bayou. I decided to abandon wandering and head to the local historical museum ten miles north to orient myself.

We are all the lugworm


New research demonstrates that the lowly lugworm (Arenicola marina) absorbs toxic concentrations of pollutants from microplastic in sand. Here is this piece from October in which I imagine being inside the gut of a lugworm. We all are inside the gut of a lugworm, of course, because that is the base of the food chain. Thanks to Susan Freinkel for pointing out this research.


plastic I collect on my daily walk


Hand-Scooped Ice Cream Shakes & Malts™ cup, disembodied hand with scoop of ice cream emerging from sunburst, somewhat threatening, yellow star smiling outlined in red® ©2011 CXE Restaurants, Inc.

Tootsie Roll® POP ARTIFICIAL CHERRY red wrapper cartoon of kid with fishing pole, boy playing with model airplane, ice skating girl, two surfers, boy and girl, boy swimming, kid tossing a football, back to us, two girls roller skating, a boy and girl grasping a flag and kind of bowing, boy cut off at the neck with headdress aiming an arrow at a star TOOTSIE ROLL INDUSTRIES, INC. CHICAGO, ILLINOIS MADE IN U.S.

LEAVE WORRY BEHIND jiffy lube® sticker 150568 MILES 12/2/2013 OR-491GQF PENZ 530

smashed ORGANIC BABY SPINACH 5 0z. box INGREDIENTS: organic baby spinach leaves. Distributed by the Kroger Co. Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 PET recycling symbol

A Chekhov quote on her skirt

all the plastic I collect on my daily walk


single-armed angel with white bow and a Chekhov quote on her skirt

some kind of space gun, grey, badly scraped

three clear lids found in a clump on the sidewalk

green soda bottle lid and top

purplish blue cap


HARIBO® KIDS AND GROWN-UPS LOVE IT SO, THE HAPPY WORLD OF HARIBO wrapper yellow cartoon bear with red bow saying ORIGINAL in speech bubble, fruit and flying (falling?) gummi bears at its feet GOLD-BEARS® GUMMI CANDY LESS THAN 1/2 OZ.

Story, no story

from Trinh T. Minh-ha‘s Woman, Native, Other, with gratitude to Yukiyo Kawano, for showing me.


The story is older than my body, my mother’s, my grandmother’s. As old as my me, Old Spontaneous me, the world….

Never does one open the discussion by coming right to the heart of the matter. For the heart of the matter is always somewhere else than where it is supposed to be …. There is no catching, no pushing, no directing, no breaking through, no need for linear progression which gives the comforting illusion that one knows where one goes….

The story never stops beginning or ending. It appears headless and bottomless … Its (in)finitude subverts every notion of completeness … We–you and me, she and he, we and they–we differ in the content of the words, the construction and weaving of sentences but most of all, I feel, in the choices and mixing of utterances, the ethos, the tones, the paces, the cuts, the pauses. The story circulates like a gift; an empty gift which anybody can lay claim to … yet can never truly possess. A gift built on multiplicity. One that stays inexhaustible within its own limits. Its departures and arrivals. Its quietness.


Learning how to live in the Anthropocene?

More thoughts arising from Roy Scranton’s piece in the NYT called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.”

I agree with Jonathan Skinner in his thoughtful response to my response. Scranton’s piece seems like a wake-up call. Asking people to learn how to die has drama. It may be the kind of rhetoric needed to penetrate political inertia in wealthy countries. Others of course are writing in similar terms about the Anthropocene. Timothy Morton, for example, declares in his book Hyperobjects that the world has already ended (twice).

The writings of the object oriented ontologists like Morton have been central to me as I figure out how to write/live this Plastic Autobiography. I find inspiring and transformative the idea of the ecological thought, and of a flat ontology that places everything on an equal plane of being.

But I noted something that happened in Scranton’s piece that also happens with the OOOs (whom he mentions): the lives disappeared. Perhaps making concrete the actual lives (and deaths) of U.S. soldiers, Iraqis, victims of Katrina, would have been too dissonant in a piece calling for people to “learn how to die.” Because of course, the death Scranton calls for is metaphorical, the death of a way of life.

In some OOO writings the engagement with the object in all its mysterious hiddenness seems to have the effect of not only deprioritizing the human subject but occluding  it altogether. As others have pointed out, the context in which objects come into existence—global capitalist production and all the inequities and exploitation it entails—tends to disappear. Some OOO thinkers have noted that this consideration of power structures is just not what OOO is about. Maybe not, but I’m interested in learning about possibilities for living in the Anthropocene—not just for my own life but for all the lives put at risk—so I’m interested in power structures.

In this line of thinking, I appreciate Jane Bennett in particular. As a political scientist, she places the human interaction with the object in an explicitly political context. She says it is the guiding question of her book Vibrant Matter, to ask: “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?”

She also notes the limits of foregrounding objects, saying that she “elides what is commonly taken as distinctive or even unique about humans” only “for a while” and “up to a point.” She makes explicit that her project is motivated by concern for human survival.

I’m concerned with survival of many types of lives, not just humans. Nonetheless, I admire Bennett’s positioning. Setting limits, conditioning a stance—these are not bold and dramatic gestures. Such an approach is not likely to garner a headline in The New York Times. Perhaps we need both dramatic rhetoric and carefully delineated scholarship, every tactic possible to draw attention and change thinking. I admire Bennett, though, because her work shows a rigorous sense of responsibility to the subject matter, and to what is at stake. You know, lives.

The luxury of learning to die

I read Roy Scranton’s “Learning how to die in the anthropocene” this morning via Jonathan Skinner. I instantly responded to it. It seemed just right—it set the tone of our moment. I tweeted it. Then I started really thinking about it.

Scranton notes that the biggest challenge of global warming is that, well, it changes everything. The global economy is predicated on technology that could destroy global civilization (and wipe out a bunch of other species in the process). The challenge of global warming, says Scranton, is “that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Once we understand, he says, that our civilization is already dead—meaning, no longer tenable—we “can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

I realized I found that comforting, uplifting even, in the same melancholy way that gazing over ruins uplifted Romantic poets. If the end has already happened, well, the danger has passed, and we can get on with mourning and rebuilding.

One thing about the death of civilization, though—all these individual deaths keep haunting me. You know, the ones going on right now in the Philippines, hit two days before Scranton published his op-ed in the Times by one of the largest typhoons ever recorded. Here is the Filipino climate chief tearfully calling the world to act at the UN Climate Conference going on now in Poland.

Scranton has faced his own death. He was a soldier in Iraq. According to his essay, he faced his individual death admirably, with philosophy to help him. I’ve never experienced the kind of threat he lived through—and I hope never to—so I can’t say anything about it. Scranton notes, however, that even facing death he was “statistically” … “pretty safe,” given his membership in “the most powerful military the world has ever seen.”

He only glancingly mentions the fate of Iraqis, more than one hundred thousand of whom have died since 2003, and he barely alludes to deaths from Hurricane Katrina, where he watched on TV the same chaos and collapse he had seen in Baghdad, complete with uniformed officers shooting civilians.

Scranton glances past them, but there they are, the lives. They demand some response from us, don’t they? While those of us who have the luxury are learning how to die, what do we do about all the people who are actually dying?

Alice Notley

Every time I see Alice Notley read I want to leave my life and just follow her around.


Some Alice:

I don’t care about anything else. I want to see peacocks in my yard right now.

I am listening for something else. Not death but what she hears.

How can we disattach ourselves from those binding us to their use?

I would rain on you if I were rain. Hard.

I’m courting chaos in me.

I am leading you to language that restructures the universe.

We are making what we are. Just that.