This is a short story that I read in one of those many magazines that I was reading in the mid-to-late 1980s. It was most likely published between 1960 and 1985, but I'm not 100% certain.

One scene of the story (I think near the beginning) features a man (the main character?) eating a meal served on an airplane. The narration remarks about the mess of the tin foil and cardboard packaging in which it comes, noting that the appearance of a new bacteria or fungus that eats plastics and synthetic rubbers had made it impossible to use plastic for packaging any more. (Don't ask how it was possible to keep jetliners running; it may have mentioned that the plane was an older-style propeller plane made entirely of wood and metal, but I don't specifically recall this.)

I don't think that the story was specifically about the impact of the loss of plastic, but I feel like the side effects came up at other points in the story. I can't remember the specifics of these other mentions, though.

The closest I've been able to find in my searches is Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain (definitely not it) and a 1971 novel called Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters. Per ISFDB, it doesn't look like excerpts of this were printed in any magazines, and the reviews of this novel make it sound like a disaster movie plot that doesn't sound right. I don't think that's it, either.

  • I was thinking it was Mutant 59 from the title. Guess I'll just move on.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 16:18
  • 1
    Mutant 59 is definitely more of a disaster novel. Fond memories of reading it though, our small town library didn't have much sf but somehow got this when it came out. There are no airplane scenes in the novel IIRC. Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 17:07

2 Answers 2


It's only a partial match, but could this be "Timescape" by Greg Benford? It deals with the Earth suffering a series of ecological disasters like algal blooms and mass diebacks, due to interactions between pollutants and pesticides. What brought this to mind is that one of the main characters, a physicist called Gregory Markham travels on a plane and notes about the in-flight meal:

The only saving grace in this was the absence of plastic packaging, he thought. The bombing of the Saudi fields several years ago had brought an abrupt end to that, and a return to humble cardboard.

The loss of plastic was only incidental to the main theme of environmental catastrophe, but helps paint a picture of a world in sharp decline. With a publication date of 1980 it's consistent with the poster's recollection, but the problem is it was a novel rather than a short story (though it's conceivable a section was published in a magazine).

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    You can't tell from ISFDB but Benford's "Cambridge, 1:58 A.M." seems to be a version of Timescape: it has algal blooms, tachyonic messages, and a Gregory Markham. But it appeared in a paperback anthology not a magazine, and in a quick skim I saw nothing about an airplane meal.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 19:37
  • That's an intriguing find. It also appears Egan used the plot in a short story, "3:02 P.M., Oxford," published in If in September 1970. That doesn't have Gregory Markham or a plane flight either though, alas. Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 11:27
  • ... maybe? I don't recall ever reading this book, but one of the cover designs seems a little familiar. The quote doesn't seem quite right, either, but it's definitely close. I'll see if I can dig up a copy of the book.
    – Otis
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 20:05
  • On further reflection and after reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, which has a few other details that ring a bell, I'm going to say that this is very likely the correct answer. I think that I had read "The Andromeda Strain" around the same time, so the two books probably got somewhat conflated in my memory. Thank you!
    – Otis
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 4:29

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater was based on the first episode of the BBC TV series Doomwatch, which was written by the authors of the novel. Adaptations of three episodes including that one were published in 1975 in Doomwatch: The World in Danger, which might be what you’re looking for, though it’s not a magazine.

  • I took a look at this, but that doesn't seem to be it. The ISFDB cover image doesn't look familiar, and the summaries that I read for the other two episodes adapted for the novel ("Red Sky" and "Survival Code") don't sound familiar, either. I do appreciate the answer, though.
    – Otis
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 13:39

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