The terrible power of plastic is that it quickly becomes useless but never goes away

There’s a scene in the movie Samsara (2001): a young monk is struggling to focus on his meditation, and an older monk shows him some erotic scrolls. When he holds the images up to the firelight, an underpainting reveals grotesque decaying skeletons in place of the lovers.

I often think of this scene when I look at plastic things. I moved to the Mojave desert of Southern California six years ago. Living here has taught me about the impermanence of plastic in a visceral way.

Most common plastic items -- bags, toys, clothespins, tarps, ropes, small appliances - - will, if left outdoors, degrade from brand-new to useless over the course of one or two of our six-month-long summers, thanks to the deserts baking temperatures and relentless sunshine.

Plastic bags shred into tiny fragments and blow away on the breeze. That “bomb-proof” webbing on your backpack turns to powder and sticks to your fingers. Milk crates and five gallon buckets shatter and collect in the sand. Toys crack, cave in, leaving residues of powdered color on your hands. Elastic in clothing quickly loses the power to rebound if stored in a shed. Our harsh climate accelerates the inevitable.

Poor folks take their garbage out to the desert and dump it rather than pay fees at the landfill. It’s illegal –- and reportable -– but judging by the piles of trash I find whenever I go for a walk out in the desert, it’s also fairly common.

These indignities flash before my eyes as I roam the fluorescent lit aisles of big box stores, or browse Amazon. How will it look bleached by the sun?

The acre of land we live on previously hosted a backyard auto chop shop and probably other things we don’t want to know about. Our sand -– full of fragments of plastic, glass, nails, sequins, beads, foam – will never be clean again. In other climates, opportunistic greenery ("weeds") quickly grow over the mess, disguising it, but here the sand hides nothing.

It isn’t just plastic, of course. Broken glass and rusted metal are also common landscape pollution, but plastic is the ugliest; the terrible power of plastic is that it quickly becomes useless but never goes away.