THE FIRST ONE I SAW was on the path outside my house: a single white plastic glove, the fingers curled inward like a sleeping animal. This was in the early days of lockdown, when the world seemed to have shifted in ways for which we weren’t yet able to account. In the weeks that followed, as governments struggled to provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and hospital staff improvised with skiing goggles and masks made from sanitary towels, more white or blue gloves began to appear on nearby streets and footpaths.
We feel anxious now about touch in a way that would have seemed unthinkable only months ago. Although both the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend wearing gloves only in clinical settings, for many the plastic glove has become an everyday article of faith, an intermediary between the wearer and a world of invisible threat. Yet SARS-CoV-2 can survive for up to four days on plastic surfaces, creating a vector for spreading disease. What justifies this misplaced trust in disposability, as if discarding them was to shed contact like a second skin?
Plastic promises to give us the world by removing us from it. According to cultural critic Heather Davis, it represents the prospect of “sealed, perfected, clean, smooth abundance”; and yet, it achieves this by separating us from life’s more “troublesome, leaky, amorphous, and porous demands.” But plastic’s promise to put a barrier between us and the world conceals a more fundamental truth: that we confirm the world, and ourselves in it, by touch. Working in concert, the senses of touch and proprioception (the body’s awareness of its own position and movement) define us in space; by touch, we know ourselves to be embodied. Texture, friction, and grain speak the world back to us. “Everything we love or lose,” wrote Fernando Pessoa, “brushes our skin and thus reaches our soul.” Touch composes us: we metabolize it, drawing it into ourselves.
I know this is true because the last hand I held before the lockdown began was my grandma’s, on the day she turned ninety-five. She had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier, after a fall that injured her lungs, and had developed pneumonia. The doctors said she didn’t have long, so I drove the ninety or so miles south from Edinburgh, where I live, to see her one last time.
It was late when I arrived at the hospital. The lights in her room were dim, and Grandma looked small in the center of the bed. She was still awake, although fitfully, and as I bent down to say hello, she grasped my hand. Her grip was loose, almost absent-minded; her hand, curved in mine, was limp, relaxed. The knuckles and joints of her fingers were like marbles, the skin softened by age. My parents were there too, and we kept a conversation going as best we could while, every now and again, she would briefly fall asleep. For the most part we spoke about when she was very young, a time she felt much more keenly than the present. It wasn’t a somber occasion. We quietly sang “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t sure if she was always aware of holding my hand, but she continued to do so for the entire visit. I realized this was why I had made the journey: to know one last time the shape of my hand in hers.
We feel anxious now about touch in a way that would have seemed unthinkable only months ago.
Some things pass between hands that we can’t explain. Among the oldest artworks in the world are handprints, stenciled in red ocher on the walls of the Chauvet–Pont d’Arc caves, in Southern France, thirty-six thousand years ago. According to the art critic John Berger, they were self-portraits of a kind, declarations of contact with the world: made “to touch and mark the everything-present.” Only a small number of specialists are permitted inside the galleries, and touching the artworks is forbidden, but still I wonder what it would be like to place my hand inside one of the stencils, negative space left empty for tens of thousands of years yet still brimful of a uniquely human presence. Loosely entwined in mine, my grandma’s hand described an inheritance I could feel but not name. It had shaped me, passing on a story that had become my own.
By the time she died, we were isolating, and I wasn’t able to attend the funeral. But in the weeks that followed, as more and more discarded plastic gloves appeared, I carried the memory of her last touch like an absent hand clasping mine.
THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY is responsible for close to a billion tons of carbon emissions each year. By 2050, it could be nearly three times as much. There are human costs too: the vast majority of single-use gloves are produced by migrant workers in Southeast Asian factories, working without protection from the harsh chemicals involved. And, formed as they are from durable polymers and loaded with toxic plasticizers and other chemicals, plastic gloves can last for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Yet in discarding them (or any plastic object, come to that), we act as if none of this touches us. The faith we invest in them is simply an expression of a larger investment in dissolving our connections with the world, a manifestation of how, over the last few centuries, synthetic materials have muted our sense of touch.
In the medieval world, God was imagined as a sculptor who fashioned the first man and woman by hand. The cult of relics, in which body parts of Christian saints (a lock of hair, a finger bone) were held to be sacred, allowed believers to affirm their faith with tangible things. Eating by hand from a common bowl was the norm and the foundation of communal life. Medieval art, with its hard outlines and flat perspective, depicted the world in hand’s reach. But as the modern world replaced the medieval, it brought a redistribution of the senses. In painting, the innovation of aerial perspective allowed Renaissance artists to present worlds of depth and distance. The Protestant Reformation preferred the mind’s eye of faith to the consolations of the sacred relic, and although the invention of the printed book put knowledge in more hands than ever before, literacy privileged the visual. Galileo displaced Earth from the center of the universe, advances in anatomy opened the body to view, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope in the late seventeenth century revealed new, infinitesimal worlds to the eye. With the Enlightenment, sight surmounted touch as the principal sense organizing reality.
The glove became fashionable among the middle and upper classes around the same time that European nations were building their empires, and according to historian Constance Classen, marked the beginning of the transition “from a hands-on to a hands-off way of life.” Popularized as a sign of status in the late Middle Ages, gloves of silk or cotton not only afforded individuals autonomy over what they came into contact with, but also advertised it. An exposed hand was now a metonym for an inability to avoid exposure to dirt, labor, and risk. The unmarked hands of the upper classes spoke of wealth created by the hands of another.
The first medical gloves were made of organic material. In 1767, a German physician, J. J. Walbaum, used gloves made of sheep intestines for obstetric examinations. By the 1840s, postmortems were conducted with gloves of latex, a natural polymer made lighter and more flexible by Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanization, which mixed the natural rubber with sulfur at high temperatures. A few decades later, some German doctors were wearing sterilized white cotton gloves for surgical procedures. And in 1889, when a surgeon at Johns Hopkins hospital, Dr. William Stewart Halsted, heard his scrub nurse, Caroline Hampton, complain that the practice of washing her hands in carbolic acid had caused severe dermatitis, Halsted appealed to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, asking them to make two pairs of black rubber gloves thin enough not to impede dexterity and with gauntlets to protect the wrist. When they arrived, Halsted offered them to Hampton. They were married the following summer.
The neatness and romance of the story, beginning with Hampton presenting her injured hands to Halsted and ending with him asking for her hand in marriage, has etched the tale in medical folklore. But it is also a story rooted in anxieties about the loss of touch sensitivity. For years, Halsted declined to wear the gloves himself out of such anxiety, and he was not alone in his reluctance. Although trials among Halsted’s nurses had found they were able to thread needles while wearing the gloves, an experiment that gave surgical gloves to three blind girls found that the gloves impeded their ability to read Braille. An article in Medical Record from 1898 expressed fear that rubber gloves would desensitize the hands of young surgeons, who were exhorted to preserve at all costs “your most precious possession—the sense of touch.”
While doctors guarded the sensitivity of their hands against the ill effects of rubber, the men and women who produced it were not so fortunate. In the Belgian Congo, rubber was gathered from a species of liana by tapping the trunk and letting the sticky latex coat the hand and arm (all hard rubber began, it seems, as a glove). The tariff for failure was unimaginably brutal:
villages that did not meet their rubber quota paid the price in severed hands. U.S. rubber factory workers exposed to carbon disulfide used during the vulcanization process suffered impotence, dementia, and loss of sensation in their hands and feet.
Nevertheless, hard rubber became an essential component of American life, particularly in the military and automobile industries. In 1939, the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Paul Litchfield, imagined industrial society as a body: “the skeleton,” he declared, “is composed of metal and cement, the arterial system of which carries a life stream of oil, and the flexing muscles and sinews of which are of rubber.” By the time the United States entered the Second World War, it consumed 600,000 tons a year, half the world’s supply of rubber. The demands of war made rubber more vital than ever but also more difficult to source, as 90 percent of the U.S. supply came from South Asia. America was poor in rubber trees, but rich in oil. In 1941, an immense collaborative effort involving the U.S. military, industry, and scientific community undertook to replace hard rubbers with synthetic forms, derived not from trees but from fossil fuels. By 1945, America’s annual production of synthetic rubber was 920,000 tons.
Following the innovations in synthetics during World War II, people found themselves surrounded by materials derived from fossil fuels. The vast infrastructure of refineries and factories created to produce Teflon, synthetic rubbers, and other synthetic materials for the war effort was diverted to the mass manufacture of polyethylene and polystyrene for the domestic market, to be found in everything from children’s toys and food packaging to cutlery and laundry baskets. The early plastics industry had celebrated its durability, but from the mid-1950s, it began to frame its products as disposable. The glut of cheap materials altered how people saw the things that lay to hand. In August 1955, Life ran an article celebrating “Throwaway Living.” The following year, Roland Barthes insisted that plastic possessed a spiritual rather than a material dimension: “plastic, sublimated as movement, hardly exists as a substance.”
Disposability also became the norm in health care. Early medical gloves—designed to be disinfected and re-worn throughout one’s whole career, gathering stains and repairs until they were as unique as the hands that wore them—were replaced by disposable latex gloves in 1965; disposable paper face masks had already replaced reusable cotton gauze in the 1930s, and would be replaced by single-use filtering masks of non-woven synthetic material during the 1960s. By the end of the decade, some U.S. hospitals had adapted to a system of total disposability.
As plastic became more malleable, the industry molded how consumers saw it. Plastic itself was becoming more responsive to the hand—in the 1950s, squeezable containers and bottles made of soft polyethylene replaced glass and thermosetting plastics— but it also became something that left the hand more easily. In 1950, annual global plastic production was 2 million metric tons (MT); by 2015, it was 380 MT. In the intervening years, 7,800 MT of plastic were produced, nearly 80 percent of which entered either a landfill or the environment. Year after year, as more and more plastic was produced, the more it seemed to disappear from view.
ONE DAY A WEEK during lockdown I have helped deliver meals to people who can’t leave their homes. We do this in groups of two or three, and each person has a role that is strictly delineated by touch. The gloveless pair of “dirty hands” pulls the cart and knocks on doors; the gloved pair of “clean hands” handles the food. I am always the clean hands, and during the rounds I make sure that the only things I touch are the paper lunch bags, which I leave on people’s doorsteps. For several hours, until the deliveries are done, I touch nothing else. But it feels strange to have this barrier between me and the world. The gloves are uncomfortable; they cling unpleasantly and make my hands sweat. With my fingers muffled, I feel slightly disembodied, and I long to peel the gloves off and be immersed again in the world of sensation.
In late March, around the same time I first noticed the gloves outside my house, photographer Dan Giannopoulos was pondering how to document life under lockdown. After the order to isolate was issued, he didn’t leave home for several days, and when he finally stepped out his front door he was immediately confronted, like I was, by a lone discarded glove. He noticed more and more as he approached his local shop, and over the next four days—walking for an hour each day within the same one-mile radius of where he lived, in Nottingham—he documented 363 of them.
I came across Dan’s photos on the BBC website, and contacted him by Skype. I told him that I thought a lot of his photographs were beautiful. He laughed and said he couldn’t help it—it was the beginning of spring, and the gutters were filling with blossoms. What had impressed him though, he said, was how many gloves he found. Several years ago he’d undertaken a similar project, documenting discarded drug baggies in London. Over three years he produced five hundred separate images; the gloves had nearly topped that in a matter of days. Since the BBC had published his photographs, dozens of people had contacted him with pictures of their own. “It’s a global issue,” he said. “There must be millions of them around the world.” That turns out to be an understatement. Somewhere in the region of 150 billion pairs of disposable gloves—latex and nitrile, as well as other synthetic materials like neoprene, vinyl, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyisoprene—are produced each year.
Discarded gloves have become icons, key glyphs in the typography of the pandemic. On social media, a hashtag was created (#theglovechallenge) to invite people to post their own images. Of course, it isn’t just gloves: synthetic fiber face masks are common too. But a dropped face mask is anonymous; it tells us nothing about the part of the body it once covered, whereas the glove wears the shape of the hand.
Photojournalist Mónica de la Torre observes that the gloves “express something that can’t be reduced to words, something untranslatable,” suggesting that we call this “absence, or avoidance of contact.” This wasn’t what I saw in the photographs, as melancholy as some of them are. To my mind, the gloves in Dan’s photographs are joined by a kind of exuberance, reveling in their contact with the world. Some grasp a metal fence post or drain cover, others are partly burrowed in piles of litter; those discarded near cigarette butts appear to be caught in the act of smoking. I am struck by their eloquence. There are gloves splayed in greeting, with palm faced up in supplication, or folded in repose. Some are aggressive, like the glove with a single raised finger, others celebratory (two fingers raised in a V for victory sign). One mismatched pair of a blue and a white glove appear to be embracing. All speak of the hands that had worn them, still gesturing, handling, reaching, grasping, carrying. In this sense, although the hands that once wore them are absent, the gloves themselves are fully embodied. “The lost glove is happy,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire; though discarded, these lost gloves still joy in interacting with the world.
I HAD FELT ANGRY after seeing images of medical staff forced by the PPE shortage to resort to bin liners instead of aprons or with welts on their cheeks from hours of wearing ill-fitting masks, but this emotion is clearly delineated by its context: this is wrong; people risking everything should not be so ill served. The gloves, by contrast, reach for something beyond the immediate moment of outrage, beyond the pandemic itself. Their iconography is not bound to a specific context; they are of a different order of time. The act of throwing away a plastic object suggests “a continuous movement from the present into the future,” writes historian Jeffrey Meikle. “But each of these objects, even something as mundane as a polyethylene shampoo bottle, was miraculously renewed each time an identical replacement appeared.” It is as if, when we throw it away, plastic throws us into a new perception of time: a perpetual present, which is always falling away and always restored. But this conceals how long-memoried plastic really is.
Most of the PPE used in hospitals and care homes as a result of the pandemic will be incinerated, but much will stay with us, left to settle beneath hedgerows or travel through drains and waterways to the oceans, where they will eventually come to rest on the ocean floor and be buried in thick sedimentary mud. It’s estimated that, under ordinary circumstances, more than half and perhaps as much as 80 percent of disposable gloves end up in a landfill. Even if we take the lower end of that range—even if we don’t factor in the effect of the pandemic—that would mean 85 billion pairs of gloves will be buried this year.
The conditions of modern landfills, designed to prevent the escape of toxic leachate, could preserve these gloves for extraordinary lengths of time. The contents of landfills pass through four broad stages: transition, when the oxygen inside the site is consumed by aerobic microbes; acid formation, when acetogenic and fermentative bacteria (which thrive in anaerobic conditions) decompose the most biodegradable materials; methane fermentation, the longest phase, when methanogenic bacteria create space to allow oxygen back in; and maturation, a final, brief phase of aerobic activity before the contents become essentially inert. In landfill sites of five meters in height, the whole process can take a hundred years, but the time increases exponentially with increases in size: fifty meters, and it could be ten thousand years before no further degradation takes place.
Natural rubber latex gloves will biodegrade in a matter of years. But like chains of hands, the tightly bound molecules that compose a synthetic polymer like nitrile are difficult to disentangle. Nitrile, which is resistant to oxidative decay, has the potential to last for hundreds of years. Like many plastics, it is vulnerable to UV light, which can fracture it into smaller and smaller pieces. But in the darkness of the landfill, without the addition of organic chemicals to accelerate their degradation, nitrile gloves could abide for centuries. PVC only depolymerizes under extreme photolytic, thermal, or chemical conditions. In the open, it is thought PVC could take a hundred years to break down; immured in a landfill, it could take thousands. Neoprene is so resistant to decay that it is actually used to line landfill sites and prevent leachate from escaping for up to tens of thousands of years. Millenia from now, neoprene gloves could linger deep beneath the surface like handprints declaring to the dark, We were here.
“THE STORY OF PLASTIC BEGINS,” according to Jeffrey Meikle, “with a material that often pretended to be something it was not.” The appeal of celluloid, an early plastic invented in 1869, lay in its capacity to assume the appearance of familiar surfaces. Celluloid knife handles mimicked the grain of wood; celluloid collars imitated the texture of linen. The abundance of more malleable thermoplastics that flooded people’s homes in the postwar years did so disguised as a wide range of traditional materials—vinyl in place of leather and ceramic; wood-grained Formica; rayon draperies and acrylic sweaters. The illusion they produced was precise enough to deceive the eye, but rarely the hand. A cellulose billiard ball might look like an ivory one, yet holding it would reveal the difference in weight; the imitation grain of a melamine table could not supplant the texture of wood. So plastic had to find a way to fool the hand, not by more subtle mimicry, but by disappearing to the touch altogether.
The human finger is extraordinarily sensitive. One study found that participants could detect a difference of thirteen nanometers (roughly the width of a human hair) between the textures of two surfaces. But unlike wood and stone, which wear their histories on their surfaces, plastic is strangely mute to the touch. There is a subtlety to even the most garish plastic, a kind of discretion, because all plastics decline to speak of their origins. The illusion that even the most ordinary plastic object is somehow out of time, perpetually isolated in its moment of use, is fundamental to its promise to be disposable. History sloughs off their wipe-clean surfaces. The cut-price synthetics that initially flooded postwar American society betrayed this promise when they quickly became discolored and tacky, often leaving behind an oily residue. The more robust plastics that followed gave away nothing of where they came from, and so could easily be taken for granted and cast away. Roland Barthes understood this, when he celebrated plastic’s alchemical promise. “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used,” he wrote in Mythologies. It arrives in the hand as if from a void, to which it returns when we let it go.
Or at least, that is the story we’re often told. In fact, plastic multiplies our touch. At every stage of life, from extraction to disposal, plastic is a source of carbon emissions. PVC, the second most widely used plastic in the world, releases chlorine into the air, water, and food chain during production, as well as dioxins, some of the most harmful chemicals ever produced. Once discarded, they carry our touch to far distant places. As if driven by a yearning for animal bodies, nitrile gloves that enter the oceans become coated in dimethyl sulfide, a substance that, to seabirds like petrels and shearwaters, smells just like the plankton that produce it. The limp undulations of plastic bags mimic those of jellyfish; microplastics masquerade as fish eggs. Discarded fishing nets seek out the embrace of the living, clinging to the necks of seabirds; bottle tops and other bright fragments even reach down into the warmth of their stomachs, blocking the flow of nutrients.
The desire for contact is soaked through plastics, a blunt fact of their chemistry. The strength of plastic polymers comes from the close-knit bonds linking their molecules into long, durable chains, but this can also make the base material rigid or brittle. The properties we associate with plastic—mutability, flexibility— are provided by a host of chemical additives: flame retardants, surfactants, plasticizers, and dyes. Rather than plastic itself, it is this suite of additives that provides the real essence of what we think of as plastic, what Barthes calls “the euphoria of prestigious free-wheeling through Nature.” The molecules of these chemicals cleave to the polymer chains, hugging them close and making them more pliable, more transparent, or more brightly colored, and so more appealing to the eyes and appetites of animals. For plastic, it seems, the habit of deception is hard to break.
“THE HUMAN IS THE TRACE that man leaves in things,” wrote Italo Calvino, and it’s true that plastic leaves its trace wherever we cast it, off-gassing phthalates in homes and offices, or leaching industrial flame retardants in seawater and creating islands of highly toxic substances that pass into the bodies of the creatures that ingest them. But what traces do the things we make leave in us? Over the course of seven years, collaborating with toxicologists and laboratories, the Canadian poet Adam Dickinson submitted biological samples from his body to discover what industrial chemicals he had absorbed from his environment. The substances he was tested for included phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bisphenol A (BPA), pesticides, and heavy metals. The book of poems that emerged from his investigation, Anatomic, describes the troubling discoveries he made. PCBs marble his fatty tissue; phthalates crowd his endocrine system. Uranium from the water table and from nuclear testing is embedded in his bones and teeth. “I am a spectacular and horrifying crowd,” he observes. “How can I read me? How can I write me?”
I wanted to hear more about what Adam had discovered, and over a scratchy video connection he explained where the process had begun. His last book, The Polymers, had explored the playfulness of plastic and other polymer formations. Anatomic, he said, developed from his growing curiosity about how he might in fact be collaborating with the subjects of his poems. “We’re rewritten by our chemicals,” he said. “I became interested in thinking about myself as a site of metabolic writing.” Anatomic describes how military, industrial, and agricultural histories had bioaccumulated in his tissues, including PCBs manufactured by Monsanto, and DDT, a once commonly used pesticide banned before he was born. The stories told in our flesh are not just ours; they also describe the extraordinary reach of the plastics industry. “We wear archives of touch,” Adam told me.
The first line of the collection reads: “The keys touch me when I type.” There is more to our actions, more to touch, than we suppose. The habitual motions of the typist, writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, constitute “knowledge in the hands,” actions so familiar that we know the position of the letters on the keyboard as we know the position of our own limbs. To become accustomed to something, he says, is a matter of absorption. One of my lockdown rituals has been to disinfect each plastic bottle, tray, packet, and carton I bring home from our local shop. As I wipe each one, the grace of ergonomic design flatters my hand, allowing it to sink into the background of my senses. But there is a chemical as well as phenomenological truth to this. A range of endocrine-disrupting phthalates can transfer from computer keyboards to the fingertips of typists.
Hormones are activated in the endocrine system when they find a receptor whose shape they fit, like a hand slipping inside a glove, which nudges the cell to make a protein or express genes that then influence how the body metabolizes or grows. The shape of an endocrine-disrupting molecule such as a phthalate might fit the receptor just as neatly, but in doing so edits the function of the cell, warping the story it tells. Endocrine disruptors can cause cells to express genes differently or to manufacture an altered kind of protein, innovations that can lead to infertility and developmental disorders.
I asked Adam what he thought it meant to “know” the chemicals inside us. “Where is the beginning and the end of touch?” he replied. “Plastic isn’t a sealed surface, it’s a porous membrane just like our skin. When we touch it, it isn’t two impervious surfaces coming into contact. The things we touch also touch us back.”
Plastic breaks its promise to seal us off from the messiness of life from the very start, dipping our hands in the sumps of oil wells and leaving a trail of chemical fingerprints, but so are its prints all over us. Adam’s poems, I realized, were really echoes of the poem being written in his body, ghostly imprints of a composition that was actually taking place deep within him. The same poem is being written in me, my children, all of us, all the time. In an essay about her father, who worked for Union Carbide, Rebecca Altman reflects that “plastic is part of our inheritance”: chemically and culturally, it shapes our bodies and how we see the world. And this composition will endure through time, as the effects of plastic on the environment will be part of the legacy we leave behind. The discarded gloves we employ to mediate our contact with the world turn out in fact to multiply it, multiplying us as they move through the world.
Millenia from now, neoprene gloves could linger deep beneath the surface like handprints.
But we are composed, too, by other kinds of touch. I close my laptop and go downstairs to find my children. My son is thirteen, and since lockdown began he has grown taller than I am; my daughter will soon turn eleven. But as I did when they were small, I can still place my hand against theirs so that it looks like a kind of halo, surrounding and holding, as if to say, despite everything, this, here, confirms you. O
This article is the first in a series, guest edited by Rebecca Altman, on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy. The series is generously supported by The Fine Fund.