NOTE: This article contains some minor early season spoilers to The Last of Us in terms of storyline, so proceed reading with this knowledge:
Earth has undergone numerous significant changes over its 4.5-billion-year existence—but sadly, none perhaps as disturbing as those caused by people. From catalyzing the climate crisis to coating the entire planet in plastic pollution, we can’t ignore the fact that human actions are not always compatible with life. Thankfully, many people are waking up, embracing their innate connection to Earth, and taking action to stop human destruction of the environment and the planet.
But still, it’s also a part of our nature to imagine what might happen if action is not taken to avert the end of the world as we know it: people have been telling tales of different versions of the apocalypse for thousands of years.
The Last of Us, HBO’s latest hit prestige drama, based on a popular video game of the same name, is one of the latest examples of modern apocalyptic storytelling. Set 20 years after a mass fungal infection sparked a global pandemic, the show doesn’t discuss plastic directly, but plastic’s presence clearly exists in the background of its post-apocalyptic setting. What’s more, the show’s visualizations of human society rebuilding, post-apocalypse, give us an idea of the importance that plastic-free principles and values such as community, reuse, refill, and sustainability could play when it comes to surviving and rebuilding at the end of the present world.
How Do Plastic-Free Principles Help Characters Survive and Rebuild?
In The Last of Us, the most successful survivors are those who practice self-reliance—as opposed to consumer lifestyles—and rely on community and plastic-free principles, including reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerate. The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tasked with escorting the teenage Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic United States. The two first come together in the quarantine zone (QZ) of Boston, run by the Federal Disaster Response Agency, or FEDRA, a military agency that has replaced the United States government. The QZ’s are portrayed in dark gray tones, as a tense, miserable, fascist state, full of deteriorating concrete and the looming fear of death. As Joel and Ellie venture out of Boston—a first for Ellie who grew up as an orphan in the QZ—they experience the wider state of the world and see the alternative communities that survivors outside of the familiar but bleak military zones have built for themselves.
In Episode 3, one of the series most impactful, the audience can visualize the first example of the more sustainable lives being built outside of the dangerous QZs. The episode follows Bill (Nick Offerman), a solitary doomsday prepper who stockpiled guns, generators, food and other supplies long before the outbreak. Bill has the skills to build, hunt, grow fruits and vegetables, and protect himself from the infected, as well as any survivors who might threaten his self-sufficient, but lonely, world. Bill’s life is changed after he takes in a fellow survivor, Frank (Murray Bartlett), and together they build a true home: creating an oasis of their own complete with shops, fine dining, and, of course, strawberries.
Later in the series, we see an Indigenous couple who secluded themselves in a remote cabin before the pandemic, and are surviving off the land. Living off-grid affords the couple nearly the same life as they had before the outbreak. In the same episode, Ellie and Joel make it out West to find a thriving community built in an old mining town in Colorado. Unlike the QZs under FEDRA’s control, this community is bright and supportive, full of self-proclaimed “communists” sharing their skills and assets in order to create a sustainable and circular economy where all the inhabitants feel both useful and cared for.
There is a clear theme that arises along Joel and Ellie’s journey: those who rely on fear and violence to rule or be ruled are depicted as undesirable, dark and scary, and ultimately unsuccessful, while those who build their lives around community and sustainability are depicted as bright, appealing, and thriving.
Which Supplies are Safe in a Post-Apocalyptic World?
One of the biggest changes from the original video game to its TV adaptation is the time setting. While the video game had the infection hit in 2013, the show creators decided to back the timeline up by 10 years, with the outbreak happening in 2003, shifting the central storyline to 2023. Co-creator Craig Mazin explained:
“There’s just something about saying this is happening now in this parallel universe. It also weirdly did give us an opportunity to explore this interesting period of the early 2000s. It has its own aesthetic. It’s got its own technology. It was an interesting place to freeze the world.”
Canned foods with plastic linings, plastic barrels, plastic baggies, and plastic food storage containers are just some of the plastic items that we see the survivors in The Last of Us using. With these items leftover from the year 2003 when the apocalypse hits in the series, an interesting question arises: would these items actually be safe to use 20 years after they were made? Or is it better for characters to focus on reusing non-plastic items they are also shown using, like glass bottles?
What’s important to note is that, in 2003, the general public was not aware of the harm of BPAs and other phthalates, and microplastics were something discussed almost exclusively by insiders in the scientific community. This means that, unbeknownst to survivors, the canned foods which most characters believe are the only products that stay preserved after 20 years, are lined with plastics containing BPA—a known endocrine-disrupting chemical. Today we know that the plastic containers these characters are shown storing food and water in are shedding microplastics and toxins that they will ingest. Using plastic—especially plastic from decades ago—may harm their health, and in the long term put them at a survival disadvantage.
How Realistic is a Fungal-Disease Apocalypse?
Could a fungal-disease apocalypse really happen? The answer is “no”, but it’s completely understandable why the concept of any kind of “zombie fungus” infecting humans would shake audiences to their core. As we focus on plastic pollution facts and solutions, The Last of Us should not spark an unnecessary fear of mushrooms and fungi.
The fungal disease depicted in The Last of Us was inspired by a sequence in BBC’s Planet Earth documentary series depicting an ant infected with a fungus that takes over its brain, and eventually digests the ant from inside, unleashing a shower of spores to create more “zombies”. When Planet Earth was launched in 2006, scientists believed this “zombie fungus” belonged to the genus Cordyceps, and the fungus in The Last of Us carries the same name. However, more recent genetic studies have identified this fungus as actually belonging to another genus, Ophiocordyceps.
“[Ophiocordyceps are] a super species-specific,” said Charissa de Bekker, an assistant professor in the biology department at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, “They have very refined machinery to interact with their hosts and do these really interesting things like changing behavior, but they can’t even jump from one species to the next,” let alone to an organism as distantly related as a human, de Bekker explained.
Many mushrooms, mycelium, and fungi are harmless, and in fact, could help us eliminate plastics—especially in packaging— to help us create a better future. Businesses like Ecovative are using mycelium (the tight, weblike, “roots” of mushrooms that are usually found below ground) to create alternatives to single-use plastic packaging that are truly nontoxic and biodegradable. Many mushroom species can also be a healthy and regenerative source of food, and provide replacements for leather and plastic vinyls and pleathers, while other species can act as remediators for contaminated landscapes.
How to Embrace Plastic-Free Principles
Our goal at Plastic Pollution Coalition is a planet free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on human health, animal health, the ocean, waterways, and the environment. As we push policymakers and corporations to implement real systemic solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, there are plenty of individual solutions you can incorporate into your everyday life that will not only improve the world today, but also benefit your health and help ensure a stronger chance of your survival if the worst were to happen (though again, let’s focus on avoiding catastrophe).
• Replacing plastic and other single-use items in your life with refillable and reusable alternatives so that there is less plastic polluting the Earth and our bodies.
• Curbing your plastic use as a direct form of allyship to people facing the brunt of Earth’s plastic pollution crisis. Plastic drives major injustice, particularly in already underserved BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities, where residents already face serious and life-threatening danger due to the production, transportation, storage, and disposal of plastics and their fossil fuel ingredients.
•Building skills and communities that help you eliminate your use of plastic: start a backyard or community garden, repurpose items instead of throwing them away; practice knitting, sewing, hunting and foraging.
Shows like The Last of Us may help us understand how to prepare for the future—or avoid the apocalypse. They encourage us to think differently about the world and the interconnected systems in which we currently live. Season one of The Last of Us is available to stream on HBOMax.
Learn More and Connect
To learn more about how we’re helping Hollywood to Flip the Script on Plastics, visit our landing page, and let us know where you’re seeing reusables on screen by tagging us on social media @PlasticPollutes with #FlipTheScripOnPlastics.