The cave was tucked under a ledge in the shoreline, on the southern end of the island of Kefalonia. You’d miss it unless you picked your way through the jagged rubble on the edge of Lassi beach. All the flotsam of our time seemed to have taken refuge in that hidden alcove, sheltered from the Ionian Sea.
Plastic straws and water bottles. Brightly-colored spoons and bottlecaps. Polymer jars dotted with the shells of crustaceans, buried among the hard splinters of old vegetable crates. I found a tiny plastic fighter jet, weathered in color to a soft and milky jade, the nose melted and disfigured in some bygone fire, sagging from the fuselage like an overripe cucumber. Crumbling bits of foam from an abandoned polyurethane mattress were everywhere underfoot, hardy black ants scurrying among them to harvest what they could.
It was a hot and cloudless day in June. People were lying out on the Mediterranean shoreline, slathered in sunscreen, dark polycarbonate lenses wrapped around their temples. I’d come to Kefalonia to meet an American artist, Pam Longobardi, here on a summer residency at the Ionion Centre for the Arts and Culture.
Pam worked with ocean plastic, building vibrant and strangely menacing sculptural forms from the debris she scouted and gathered. She’d taken to calling this cavern the Trojan Monster Cave, on account of the condoms you’d often find here, but also the mythological figures the ocean kept disgorging.
She picked up a piece of driftwood, pointing out its remarkable resemblance to a seahorse. Digging through the cave, throughout that summer, she’d found several small plastic horses, a cyclops, even a clutch of breakaway limbs from baby dolls, as though it was here that Saturn had feasted upon his young.
“The ocean is telling us something,” Pam said. “It’s communicating with us through these objects. The ocean is telling us that it’s in trouble, that it has something to do with these objects, that there’s an urgency to it. The plastic is a voice of warning. The ocean is warning us in a way that I feel, I understand. It’s my job to tell that story.”
I thought of the sage-like little figure I’d picked out of the rubble, crudely molded in a mahogany tone, a long beard dangling from his face and one of his hands clamped, oddly enough, around a hefty microphone. Or the heart-shaped locket in green, nestled in a bed of polyurethane foam and rock.
Pam was right. Messages in plastic were everywhere to be found within the cave, daring us to decode them. We packed away a few little things to take back with us, then cleaned out as much plastic debris from the cave as we could manage, filling a few jute sacks. The abandoned mattress was especially difficult to handle, the foam degrading into an impossible multitude of particles.
“It sometimes feels like the work of Sisyphus,” Pam admitted.
She suggested a swim to break from the sweltering heat. We fetched masks and snorkels from the car—not to hunt for fish, but again, for plastic. Ducking under the surface, I was mesmerized by the Neptune grass, long tassels of green undulating gently with the water. There were small fish darting from tuft to tuft, and scattered branches of red coral. There were also wrappers, disposable cups, and bags, lodged among the plants and sand.
The bags had tattered into fronds, moving as gracefully underwater as the grass itself. As we swam, we shoved as much of it as we could into the mesh bags we had in hand.
Plastic breaks quickly into smaller pieces, but these fragments can linger for decades. Hunting out these fragments means delving into a field of impossible surprises. I saw this the next day, when Pam and I snorkeled at another spot further up the coast.
An old landfill on the shoreline here was eroding into the sea, its buried objects slowly coming to light. Searching out glints of color through the opaque green water, we found half a dozen weathered combs, their teeth mostly gone but the spines remaining like lonely jawbones. I came up out of the water to find Pam beaming at me from a distance.
“I have to show you what I just found,” she called out, water streaming through her hair. “It’s going to blow your mind.”
Plastic objects can pull us into a vortex of time. Cheap to manufacture, these are mass-produced things often made to meet the most fleeting of human needs. And yet they endure far beyond those moments, quietly attesting, if you stop to pay heed, to the bygone presence of someone’s hunger, thirst, or fancy. They represent, in this way, some of the most important fossils of our time, our civilization of consumers and the detritus they will leave for future denizens of this earth to ponder.
Think too about the material from which these things are made, the hydrocarbon chains that owe their substance to the remains of living creatures from eons ago. The mystery only deepens. Peer long enough into the hard plastic shell of anything on a convenience store shelf, and you might find yourself in a dizzying whirlpool of time and change.
That afternoon, what Pam had fished from the water of the Ionian Sea was a peculiar green fragment, shaped almost like a hook or lever. Two words were stamped onto the mottled surface of the plastic relic: the word “Bayer” in an artful cursive, and just below that, the name of an industrial town in western Germany, Leverkusen. It was a piece of an aspirin dispenser from the 1960s, manufactured half a century ago. Even more stunning was the fact that I had just come to Greece from Germany, from a visit to that town where Bayer was headquartered.
I’d gone to Leverkusen on the invitation of a senior executive at Covestro AG, the plastics manufacturing division that Bayer had spun off as a separate company in 2015. I had met the executive at an international conference on plastic that year. We talked about the widespread public suspicion of the chemical industry, the way that their manufacture seemed to most people like an ominous black box. When he offered a tour of one of his plants, I leapt at the chance.
“Plastic,” the literary critic Roland Barthes famously mused, “is in essence the stuff of alchemy,” a physical testament to “the transmutation of matter.” But we hardly get to see this happen, chemicals and molecules coming together to take the shape of this ubiquitous stuff.
The Leverkusen Chempark lies along the east bank of the Rhine River, about 30 kilometers north of Cologne. The most striking feature of the site were the racks of pipes and tubes that lined and crisscrossed every road, snaking always overhead, taking steam and other materials from plant to plant, tying them together into a formidable structure of integration.
At one moment, the Covestro executive parked between a pair of towering cubes built completely from such piping. Looking something like the Borg spacecraft of Star Trek, each of these massive blocs annually synthesized 30,000 tons of hexamethylene diisocyanate, an organic compound essential to the making of polyurethane. The Chempark as a whole, I learned, took in more than two million tons of material – vats of petroleum and chemicals, mountains of salt and coal – each year, using as much water and power as a city the size of Hamburg.
Looming over the complex was the iconic Bayer cross, the letters B-A-Y-E-R laid out on a massive scale both horizontally and vertically, the two iterations meeting at the letter “Y,” set within a circle more than 160 feet in diameter. Lit up now by hundreds of LED bulbs, the logo was first raised over Leverkusen in 1933.
The tradename Bayer may be synonymous now with aspirin, the staple drug developed by the company’s chemists. But Bayer started out in the 1860s as a manufacturer of chemical dyes, and it was a plan for an integrated dye works that led to the opening of the Leverkusen industrial facility in 1907. Like several other leading German firms, Bayer began with synthetic colorants and later branched into the development of other chemical products: pharmaceuticals, photographic film, synthetic rubber, varnishes, insecticides, and indeed, plastic.
It was in a laboratory at Leverkusen that polyurethane plastics were first synthesized in the 1930s. As Otto Bayer, who headed the facility’s organic chemistry research program later recalled, it was “a most dramatic story.” Building stable macromolecular structures was difficult work, and company leaders were skeptical of its value. Polyurethane foam was itself an accident, the outgrowth of failed experiments that produced what looked like imitation Swiss cheese.
As these efforts continued into the 1940s, the work was often interrupted by air raids, and officials demanding products more useful for the war. The Bayer company had by then been absorbed into IG Farben, the massive German chemical conglomerate closely affiliated with the Nazi regime and made to stand trial for war crimes at Nuremberg in 1947.
Otto Bayer sidestepped these incriminating details in his retrospective reflections on the invention of polyurethane, only to say, rather drily, “I was able to convince some officials that our future was to a considerable degree dependent on polyurethane chemistry.”
We tend to think of plastic as something solid, and rightly so, perhaps, given the stubborn and enduring nature of the plastic things we encounter. Pay heed to its manufacture, however, and you begin to see how much in plastic turns on changes of state, on the intricacy of gases meeting solids with liquifying heat, on liquids that become still other liquids through distillation and refinement.
I got some sense of this at the polyurethane plant that we toured that day in Leverkusen. The plant manager led us through a PowerPoint lecture, showing how they worked, on a molecular level, to “convince” diisocyanate molecules to shed their toxicity and join together in polymer structures. Such was the genesis of what this plant manufactured by the tens of thousands of tons each year: adhesives and sealants, coatings for wood floors and automotive paint, glues to deliver to the Middle East, France, Italy, the United States.
Fitted with hardhats and safety goggles, we stepped into the bowels of the plant. Once again, pipes and conduits of many colors ran everywhere around us. I felt the heat, but hardly any smell, except when we approached certain devices and junctions.
The plant manager encouraged me to look into the glass portholes on the machines, to watch the fluids bubbling through them. He told me that the factory was like an organism, built up from cellular structures, working through the circulation and digestion of materials, growing and contracting in different places in response to the pressures and demands of its own unique environment: the changing market in the world beyond for plastics of particular kinds.
We finally came to a rack of transparent bottles with white labels, clear liquids of varying viscosity stashed now within them. That day, as it happened, most of these bottles would go on to be marketed as Gorilla Glue.
Later, we stopped at a showroom for plastic products made from another mid-20th century Bayer invention, polycarbonate. These were mostly automotive: headlights, door and roof panels, parts meant to be both strong and light-weight.
“Touch it!” the enthusiastic manager on duty there exclaimed, gesturing toward a translucent table also made from the same durable plastic.
“You can smash it with a hammer,” he added, reaching for a chair to bring it crashing down onto the clear face of the table. “See, no marks, no cracks.”
“How do you feel about filling up with the world with nearly indestructible stuff like this?” I asked, a bit unnerved by the demonstration.
“That’s our business!” he said with a laugh.
Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His recent books include A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (2019) and Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing (2017), which he co-edited with Stuart McLean. He is an advisor at OtherwiseMag