the plastisphere: ecologies of future landscapes  

refuse: (v)(n)(–)   ✕

by Nana Maclean
refuse: (v)(n)(–) contains many high-res image + video works and should be experienced on larger screens.

cracks and flaws

...are forming in our romantic construct of the forest, the humus, the ocean. Our footprints remain and with our use of land we leave behind traces on earth for millennia. Hunting, gathering, mining, breeding, selecting, killing, domesticating, manipulating, synthesizing, exploding interconnecting lands and water, roads, channels, tunnels, boreholes, landfills, railways, inhabiting vertical structures, undermining, classifying, colonizing.

What a great force of nature we are - shifting us and the planet into a new geological time. There's no return to nature. Where there have been forests, there will be no forests anymore. Where there have been bees there will no be bees anymore. Where there have been spring, there will be .. silence. The story is a tale of loss and destruction. But who is losing here?

Our landscapes change and with them whole ecosystems reform and grow towards a new nature.

A new landscape, a next landscape.


Plastics are known for being remarkably resistant to natural degradation processes. An attribute most favorable in the first place, it has eventually resulted in one of the most disastrous environmental calamities of our times. Their water-repelling nature makes most plastics inaccessible for biotic decomposition and the usual microorganisms have difficulties even colonizing the surface. At the same time, plastic production has been growing up to 299 million metric tons annually, the majority of which are for disposable use. This overabundance of plastic debris and its accumulation in land and waters, creates a new geology where soil profiles contain layers of fragmented plastics, new chemicals and radioactive dust.

A next soil is forming, disconnected from any geological time scale. A new time with different history. Motherdirt. Becoming its own geology.

Where geology forms, lifeforms will eventually adapt and colonize this new sediment as a habitat and food source. Sites of refuse and littering might have gotten a new fertile identity. A new habitat. The 'plastisphere'

A single bacterial cell forms a colony of more than a million cells in ten hours. With a mutation rate of 0.003 mutations per generation, bacteria adapt easily to new ecosystems with new textures and nutrients, chemicals and grains. In their flexibility, in their adapting to new substances, their life is plasticity, randomness, mutation.

For an ongoing research project on bacterial communities in the "plastisphere", old landfills are being visited as a symbolic and physical projection of a new habitat. Capturing microbial data with experimental culturing techniques and DNA sequencing of the plastic-associated microbial community. This project seeks to describe and compare the bacterial community of plastic polluted ground, identifying dominant species and functional groups responsible for colonization and subsequent degradation processes.

Are sites of human-made catastrophes the new evolutionary hotspots in our earth system?


Evolution doesn't distinguish between born or made, growth or synthesis, natural or cultural. Nature includes and adapts to our new materiality, new niches are being formed and create new lifeforms that will get born. In the soil, microorganisms are involved in degradation processes of both natural and synthesized material. In order to build on the initial understanding of the plastisphere as living habitat, I started characterizing the microbial community on plastic debris in soil and landfills.

My research uses molecular techniques to characterize the microbial community on plastic debris in soil and landfills. By extracting DNA from such sediments, I'm trying to map the bacterial varieties, hypothesizing that they must have undergone natural adaptation processes to degrade and utilize plastic as a nutrient source.

In 2016, a Japanese research team around Shosuke Yoshida sampled soil and mud around a PET bottle-recycling factory and screened for plastic adapted bacterial strains. To their surprise, they could isolate a new bacterial species that evolved a whole new enzymatic pathway, able to decompose and metabolize synthetic polymers. Traces of our remains became a fertile ground for natural adaptation.

Plastic chips before and after the incubation with bacteria from the landfill. Cracks get colonized and white bacterial biofilms forms after 4 months in liquid culture.

So far I could isolate and sequence around 14 different bacterial species that were connected to plastic debris and plastic-polluted soil. With the four most abundant strains, I perform incubation tests in liquid culture, where I feed them plastic as their only carbon source. Shifting the focus towards a new understanding of ecology, it includes us and our synthetic remains into the concept of a new nature.

Acknowledging the ecology in our refuse should help us find solutions for the overabundance of plastic on this planet. Strategies that nature has already developed - while we're still busy healing symptoms.


Our landscapes change and with them whole ecosystems reform and grow towards a new nature. This research tells a story of a new understanding of nature. A new landscape, a next landscape.

The story is not a tale of loss nor deconstruction! Isn't it only us, losing our romantic construct of the forest, the humus, the ocean? This story is a tale of a return to nature. A story of plasticity, of randomness and of mutation. Of new taxonomies, new sounds, new archeologies. Of language, new language, categories, progress, migrate, open, feel, change, transform, widen, rise, turn, dynamics, inhale, vary, distort, exhale, care, revolve, migrate, welcome, respond, shift, replace, exhale, change, tolerate, revolt, grow, spread, noise, transform, think, inhale, evolve, evolving, breathe... keep on evolving.

Nana MacLean was born '89 in Berlin, studied Biology at the UvA Amsterdam and is currently enrolled in a Master of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at University Potsdam, Germany. Throughout her studies, she has been part of several research institutes such as the Interdisciplinary Laboratory HU Berlin, Max-Planck-Institut of Plant Physiology and the FEM Institute in Trento, Italy.

Currently, she works on projects that are trying to cross borders between disciplinary styles and methods.In her current research at the GFZ Geomicrobiology group Potsdam, she explores The Plastisphere - ecologies of future landscapes, where she characterizes microbial evolution in artificial landscapes and plastic polluted grounds. In the past years, she has developed a special interest in future ecologies and areas of research that involves storytelling and other imaginative methodologies.

Other projects included Genesis& Geneology - Form follows flower at HU Interdisciplinary Lab 2015 and as part of UdK product design faculty Berlin in 2016, the design and concept for Youterus - design for a future pregnancy.