x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A poly-morose conscience

The proliferation of plastic will continue, but in Astrid's world, at least, its inexorable march will be slowed for a few months.

In the northern Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, there is a vast whirl of floating rubbish called the Eastern Garbage Patch. It is a confluence of currents that traps the world's flotsam and jetsam, its discarded plastic bags and bottles, in an area estimated at almost the size of Africa. Unlike its dry counterpart, the Fresh Kills landfill site outside Manhattan - the largest rubbish dump in the world until it was closed in 2001 - the Eastern Garbage Patch is not visible from space. It consists mostly of nurdles: tiny pieces of plastic made smaller and smaller by the sun's rays. These flecks will decompose eventually, but it will take hundreds of thousands of years. In certain spots these particles vastly outnumber plankton.

It is not hard to see why plastic is a prime target for ecological warriors and environmentalists. Beyond its environmental impact, there is simply something negative about the word. Plastic surgery, plastic bags, plastic explosive: it conjures fakery, inauthenticity, destruction. Nor does plastic grow old gracefully. Compared with alternative materials - wood, ceramics, metal - it wears the ravages of time lightly until one day it shatters or breaks. It lacks the faded lustre of metal or the smooth contoured wear of wood.

It is harder than you might think, though, to shun plastic. It dominated Astrid's Christmas presents last week. In the preceding weeks, shop shelves were crammed with items such as the Winkel, a spaghetti of brightly coloured plastic tubes, or Dado cubes, plastic building blocks which stack together in countless ways. Admittedly a smattering of wooden toys was available, but on the whole Christmas was easily summed up: buying plastic with plastic.

It has taken almost century and a half to reach this point. Developed in the 1860s and 1870s, celluloid is widely considered the first synthetic plastic material, although Parkesine, a flexible material made from nitrocellulose, alcohols, camphor and oils in 1856, predates it. Not until the 20th century did plastic become one of the dominant materials of the world. In October 1940, a US magazine called Fortune published a map of Synthetica, a new continent of plastics. This imaginary map charts regions such as Petrolia, Cellulose and Vinyl. The pink form of Rayon Island juts out into the sea on one side, while the brown mass of Nylon Island sits off the coast on the other.

The map has some delightful conceits: "The greatest plastic country of all - a heavy industrial region of coal-car chemicals led by Formaldehyde River - is Phenolic. Its hard-working plastics, in a sober Quaker dress of limited colours, go into most of industry. Capital: Bakelite, ruled Union Carbide & Carbon Corp." A similar, updated map would no doubt teem with complex polymers and Petrolia would be bigger, but the prophecy of a world dominated by plastics is almost complete.

For this reason, we are boycotting plastic toys from now on. I realise it is a futile act. It will not change the world. In that sense nothing significant will come of it. Nevertheless, it feels worthwhile. The proliferation of plastic will continue, but in Astrid's world, at least, its inexorable march will be slowed for a few months.

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After nearly seven years in London, the city scowl became my default expression. I came to adopt the blasé attitude of the city-dweller: nonchalant, inscrutable, unfriendly. In many ways, it was a necessity: the metropolis is so full of people and stimuli you have to tune out to some extent to avoid going mad. But it is not altogether welcome. It can lead to a shutting off to new experiences, a hardening of habit.

Astrid is the perfect antidote to this modern malaise. She smiles at almost everyone. She waves indiscriminately. She is the epitome of a mind open to the point of distraction. In fact, distraction seems to be the point of her existence so far. Wandering around with her is, I imagine, a bit like being a bodyguard for a film star. People just come up and start wanting to touch her. My first reaction is to stop them, but then I realise it is harmless. People smile and wave as if she were a close family member.

Of course, this experience could be limited to Abu Dhabi. With so many parents in the UAE living a world away from their children, reacting joyfully to a smiling child may just be a way to satiate parental longing. Whatever the reason, it is good for all concerned.