There is virtually nowhere on earth that remains untouched by plastics and the situation presents a serious threat to our natural world. Despite the magnitude of the problem, the interventions most often put in place are consumer-led and market-based and only nominally capable of addressing the issue. As the problem worsens and neoliberal ideologies limit the world’s responses to this crisis, there is a growing need for legislative frameworks that attend to the complex social and ecological issues associated with plastics.
The contributors to this volume bring expertise from across academic disciplines to illustrate how plastics are produced, consumed, and discarded and to find holistic and integrated approaches that demonstrate an understanding of the wide-ranging problem. From the plasticization of earth’s oceans to the endocrine disrupting chemicals that have the potential to seriously harm life as we know it, these essays beg the question that we all must answer: what is our plastic legacy?
With contributions by: Imogen E. Napper, Sabine Pahl, Richard C. Thompson, Sasha Adkins, Stephanie B. Borrelle, Jennifer Provencher, Tina Ngata, Sven Bergmann, Christina Gerhardt, Elyse Stanes, Tridibesh Dey, Mike Michael, Laura McLauchlan, Johanne Tarpgaard, Deirdre McKay, Padmapani Perez, Lei Xiaoyu, and John Holland.
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Pollution, Persistence, and Politics
TRISIA FARRELLY, SY TAFFEL, AND IAN SHAW
Copyright © 2021 Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, and Ian Shaw
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Title: Plastic legacies : pollution, persistence, and politics / edited by Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, and Ian Shaw.
Names: Farrelly, Trisia, editor. | Taffel, Sy, editor. | Shaw, Ian C., editor.
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Subjects: LCSH: Plastic scrap. | LCSH: Plastic scrap—Environmental aspects. | LCSH: Plastic scrap—Social aspects. | LCSH: Plastics—Environmental aspects. | LCSH: Plastics—Social aspects. | LCSH: Plastics industry and trade—Environmental aspects. | LCSH: Plastics industry and trade—Social aspects.
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Introduction: Our Plastic Inheritance
Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, and Ian Shaw
PART I POLLUTION
1. Marine Litter: Are There Solutions to This Global Environmental Problem?
Imogen E. Napper, Sabine Pahl, and Richard C. Thompson
2. Slow Violence: The Erosion of Marine Plastic Debris and of Human Health
3. How Seabirds and Indigenous Science Illustrate the Legacies of Plastics Pollution
Stephanie B. Borrelle, Jennifer Provencher, and Tina Ngata
4. Dawn of the Plastisphere: An Experiment with Unpredictable Effects
PART II PERSISTENCE
5. Plastiglomerate: Plastics, Geology, and the New Materialism of the Anthropocene
6. Dressed in Plastic: The Persistence of Polyester Clothes
7 Caring for the Multiple Cares of Plastics
Tridibesh Dey and Mike Michael
8. On Becoming a Massively Distributed Thing: Hedgehogs, Plastics, and the Bearable Lightness of Becoming
PART III POLITICS
9. Communicative Capitalism, Technological Solutionism, and The Ocean Cleanup
10. Toward Large-Scale Social Change and Plastic Politics: An Anthropological Perspective on the Practices of a Danish Environmental Organization
11. Plastics Talk/Talking Plastics: The Communicative Power of Plasticity
Deirdre McKay, Padmapani Perez, and Lei Xiaoyu
12. Redressing the Faustian Bargains of Plastics Economies
Trisia Farrelly, Ian Shaw, and John Holland
Conclusion: Where There’s a Will … Contesting Our Plastic Inheritance
List of Contributors
This volume was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Massey University College of Humanities, the Massey University School of People, Environment, and Planning, and the Massey University School of English and Media Studies. The editors also wish to thank Paul Spoonley, Glenn Banks, and Jenny Lawn for their ongoing support for Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC) initiatives and Lisa Vonk for her administrative assistance. This book emerged from PERC’s Lives and Afterlives of Plastic Conference held online in 2017. The presentations offered in this conference generated a great deal of lively online discussion. We would also like to thank those who contributed to these thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions since they have undoubtedly influenced the content of this book.
Trisia Farrelly, Sy Taffel, and Ian Shaw
Plastics have revolutionized our lives. They have made possible things such as smartphones, modern cars, and LCD screens that depend on the light weight, high strength, and electrical and thermal insulation of plastics. They have enabled the production of disposable surgical equipment that ensures sterility, thereby minimizing inter-patient disease transfer. Countless lives have been saved, and the use of antibiotics has been reduced, as a result of lower levels of post-operative infection. Plastics allow the minimization of food contamination by harmful bacteria and reduce food-borne illnesses. With COVID-19, health or frontline workers and the vulnerable population rely on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) made of plastic. On the face of it, plastics are good … .
Despite the wonderful advances that plastics have enabled, however, thousands of unnecessary uses have developed simply because plastics are cheap and disposable. Drink containers, bags, straws, cutlery, and other single-use disposable plastics bring few tangible benefits to the vast majority of people who use them for their convenience.1 A lot of single-use PPE equipment ends up in the environment. This could be avoided if they were swapped for reusables for those not working on the frontline and for those not immune compromised. Many plastic items—including toys and other items meant for recreation, entertainment, or aesthetics—often last little longer than plastics specifically designated for single use. When plastics are deemed disposed of “responsibly,” this often involves the export of “recyclable” material from higher-GDP to lower-GDP countries. Whether responsibly or irresponsibly managed, all plastics will eventually find their way into the biosphere.
Plastics are polymers: molecules composed of repeating monomer units strongly bonded together. The adjective plastic refers to the capacity of these malleable materials to be moulded and set. Historically, a range of natural malleable materials such as rubber, ivory, and amber were employed (Bensaude-Vincent 2013). However, by the late nineteenth century, the industrial demand for these pliable materials exceeded their supply. Subsequent to the invention of Bakelite in 1907, the first petrochemical-derived synthetic plastic, there has been a meteoric growth in the production of synthetic polymers, to the point that they are now synonymous with the word plastic itself; when other plastics are mentioned, they tend to be prefixed as natural or bioplastics. Although no synthetic polymers were produced prior to 1907, and less than half a million tonnes were produced annually by 1950, by 2016, global plastics production reached 335 million tonnes per annum (PlasticsEurope 2017). That figure is set to go higher with continued activity in the petrochemical sector. In 2015, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastics by weight than fish (MacArthur, Waughray, and Stuchtey 2016). Then, in 2017, a report predicted a 33–36 percent increase in plastics production by 2025 and illustrated how the fossil fuel industry is driving that production, with no sign of slowing down (CIEL 2017). For example, Exxon Mobile and Shell Chemical have poured almost $200 billion into new “cracking” plants since 2010 to produce everyday consumer plastics in the United States.
There is virtually nowhere on Earth today that remains untouched by plastics. They are found in the Arctic Ocean (Obbard et al. 2014), 83 percent of global tap water samples, air, honey, beer, soil, and sea salt (Kosuth, Mason, and Wattenberg 2018). One hundred percent of animals tested at the bottom of the ten-kilometre-deep Mariana Trench, one of the most remote places on the planet, had ingested plastic (Jamieson et al. 2017).
Because of the chemical nature of plastics, bacteria and other living members of the biosphere cannot readily degrade them, so they persist in the environment. During their afterlife, they are buffeted and pulverized by the physical environment and broken down by marine fauna such as Antarctic krill (Dawson et al. 2018). These processes eventually lead to the formation of microplastics and nanoplastics small enough to penetrate cell membranes. Plastics fill the stomachs of animals when they are mistaken for food, making them feel full while providing no nutritional value and damaging their digestive tracts. Some of the monomers used to produce plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and styrene, are toxicants, as are many of the plasticizers, colourants, flame retardants, and UV stabilizers added to those monomers. In marine and freshwater environments, plastics tend to adsorb (attract) persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides and other toxic substances. When ingested, plastics leach these toxicants into tissues and organs, where they bioaccumulate. When these creatures are eaten by predators, such as larger fish, whales, or humans, these toxic substances biomagnify, meaning that they are found in higher concentrations further up the food chain (Rochman 2015). In short, they wreak havoc on ecological and biological systems. So, after a bit more consideration, perhaps plastics are not as good as we originally thought.
In a risk-benefit (i.e., bad versus good) setting, perhaps it is acceptable that a modicum of environmental harm might result from the plastics-driven improvements to surgical procedures, disaster relief equipment, and other necessities, but this is far removed from exposing organisms to health-related risks by using disposable plastic cups or bags. The logic of the above argument is clear, but trying to persuade a public and its leaders to get rid of unnecessary, yet economically cheap and convenient, products manufactured by large and powerful companies is no simple task. It is especially challenging when many of the harms associated with plastics are suffered not only by those located at sites of extraction and production but also by communities located far away from these sites.
If we are to wean ourselves off our cultural addiction to unnecessary and harmful plastics, then we will need powerful science communication about the harms that plastics cause. We will also need to engage politicians who can initiate policy and legislation to render our reliance on unnecessary and disposable plastics illegal and hold corporations accountable. “We” should also engage reflexively with who exactly is being signalled by the collective pronoun we. All too often it refers to privileged inhabitants of the developed world and involves universalizing their situation as the human condition, continuing a long tradition of bourgeois and colonialist discourse that functionally silences marginalized groups. As Chapters 3, 7, and 11 of this book emphasize in regard to Māori and Inuit groups, and to inhabitants of India and the Philippines, not everyone is affected equally by, or complicit in, producing the harms associated with plastics. For example, on average, the inhabitants of the United States, Germany, Kuwait, and New Zealand produce between thirty-three and seventy times more plastic waste than citizens of India or Sudan (Jambeck et al. 2015).
At the same time, however, the enduring dominance of a neoliberal ideology that fetishizes competitive individualism and quantitative competition within markets signals why there is still a need for collective nouns and pronouns. If the “we” is erased entirely, then all that is left is a collection of individuals, homo economicus, the atomized consumer-subject of neoliberalism (Brown 2015). A cultural politics of plastics therefore requires the formation of a sense of common ground and a “we,” albeit one that does not seek to universalize and homogenize but recognizes difference and promotes the forms of purposive collective action necessary to address twenty-first-century socio-ecological crises (Gilbert 2014; Hardt and Negri 2017).
This book also forms a substantial critique of neoliberal approaches to tackling the crisis of plastics. Frequently, these are consumer-led approaches to ethical consumption that nominally seek to address the complex issues associated with plastics via individual, market-based interventions. As Chapters 4, 6, and 8 emphasize, such solutions fail fundamentally to recognize, let alone address, the scale of the issue. Additionally, acts of ethical consumption do not address issues of production, infrastructure, and industrial waste, all of which are significant problems that domestic consumption practices simply cannot scale up to address. A related neoliberal solution to ecological crises is seen in the promise of the utopian technological fix, which advocates that legislative solutions are unnecessary: the market will self-correct, and technological innovations such as The Ocean Cleanup (see Chapter 9), recycling, plastic-eating bacteria, and waste-to-energy incineration will “save the world” from ecological crises arising from industrial capitalism. In place of ethical consumerism and technological solutionism, the authors of this book advocate for various forms of collective political and legislative action and activism designed to mitigate, not resolve, issues in the use of plastics. Plastics cannot simply be erased from the planet; the question therefore becomes how best to live with them and reduce harms to human and non-human lives.
The complexities inherent in how plastics are produced, consumed, and discarded are never purely material, social, nor stable. As such, addressing the complex social and environmental issues associated with plastics requires an interdisciplinary focus that crosses the divisions among the natural and life sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. This book brings together contributions that lay out scientific positions set within a human context to explore some of the political ramifications associated with plastics. Nevertheless, social scientists, artists, and natural and life scientists speak very different languages. This can make comprehension, let alone conversation, across these academic domains difficult. As editors of this volume, we came to understand better the value and challenges of such interdisciplinary collaborations in the process of curating this material. This journey has meant that we are a little more fluent in each other’s strange language, and most importantly we now better understand the breadth of issues related to the pollution, persistence, and politics of plastics. We hope that our readers, like us, will obtain a deeper understanding of the complex socio-ecological issues associated with plastics after they turn the final page of this book.
We also hope that our readers echo the interdisciplinary makeup of the contents of the book: academics and students working across the range of disciplines that comprise contemporary environmental studies (Castree, Hulme, and Proctor 2018) and environmental humanities (Rose et al. 2012). Additionally, we hope that this book appeals to activists and policy makers. Indeed, one of the key interventions that Plastic Legacies seeks to make is to consider how a broad range of academic perspectives can contribute to pragmatic attempts to engage with (if not contribute to finding solutions to) the multiple crises pertaining to the use of plastics.
In the remainder of this introduction, we present the three key themes that structure the book and comprise its subtitle: pollution, persistence, and politics. Broadly speaking, the first section, “Pollution,” lays out the scientific basis for understanding the global plastics crisis and asks readers to question how and why we construe plastics as pollution. Because this section introduces the issues associated with plastics, some chapters are more descriptive than those in subsequent sections. The second section, “Persistence,” considers how the material affordances of plastics require us to think across spatio-temporal scales that far exceed how social or environmental crises are typically framed. And the third section, “Politics,” explores a range of strategies designed to intervene in the complex issues outlined in the first two sections.
Plastics are routinely referred to as pollution, but what does that really mean? Beyond a broad sense that plastics are problematic or damaging materials, how should we understand pollution as a category? What or who is harmed by these materials? In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas (1966) referred to pollution as “matter out of place.” Whether a person or thing is in or out of place is determined by cultural and political norms. By describing plastics as pollution, are we saying that there is no place for synthetic polymers in spite of the social benefits that certain plastics bring? It is useful to reiterate that not all plastics are alike, and not all plastics are good or bad, safe, or hazardous, in all circumstances all of the time. Different plastics break down and adsorb persistent organic pollutants more or less easily and are more or less buoyant, economically and culturally valuable, and recyclable. Paying attention to the specific materialities of plastics within specific contexts therefore becomes important. Nevertheless, as Max Liboiron (2016) points out, the toxicological science that labels plastics as “pollutants” and determines the safe limits of toxicants is made to appear apolitical. Yet risk assessments themselves are socially mediated and never apolitical. This does not mean that they are fabricated; rather, tools, technologies, techniques, funding bodies, institutional structures, economic power, and cultural norms all play parts in the co-production of scientific knowledge. All of them come together to the ultimate determination of whether a polymer is safe or hazardous, under which conditions, and at which stage in its life cycle.
Traditionally, toxicology has been guided by the Paracelsus principle, which contends that the dose makes the poison (Myers and Hessler 2007). All substances can be poisonous. The concentration determines whether something acts as a toxicant. Below a certain threshold, substances are considered to be safe; above it, they are understood to be harmful. Indeed, substances such as water are completely necessary for human and non-human life, but above certain concentrations water intoxication—a potentially fatal condition—occurs. With regard to plastics, some monomers, plasticizers, and additives (e.g., phthalates) are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that can leach from plastic packages and containers into food and beverages (Farrelly and Shaw 2017). EDCs interfere with the hormonal systems of humans and animals, causing a range of negative developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects (Diamanti-Kandarakis et al. 2009; Shaw 2014). As noted in Chapter 12 of this volume, the determination of safe limits of EDCs is complex. EDCs are hazardous at low doses, and particularly at crucial periods, such as during fetal development and breastfeeding. The “low-dose theory” is one example of the politicization of plastics science. The theory is now commonly accepted by endocrinologists, yet it has been slow to be accepted, unsurprisingly, by the petrochemical and plastics industries—including the scientists that they fund and the politicians that they support.
As shown in Chapter 7 of this volume, the use of language and interpretation more broadly has significant implications for social and environmental responses. The word litter is a case in point. The word may be defined as “rubbish such as paper, cans, and bottles left lying in an open or public place” (Stevenson 2010). There are many documented cases in which the plastics industry and many states around the world have deployed the word in their public messaging to deflect the blame for plastics pollution onto individual consumers. New Zealand has seen a string of “anti-litter” campaigns since the government established the Anti-Litter Council in 1967. Examples of the slogans used for these campaigns include “Be a Tidy Kiwi” and “Do the Right Thing.” In 2017, a $1.7 million “Litter Less, Recycle More” campaign was established by the New Zealand Packaging Forum (the New Zealand packaging industry). In the United States, the American Chemistry Council website is designed to convey the message that plastics are a problem only if those who use them are irresponsible or ignorant (Liboiron 2012). The Plastics Federation of South Africa adopted the US catchphrase—“Plastics Don’t Litter, People Do!”—“illustrating the core strategy of individualizing the problem, confining it to the domain of consumption, and thus heading off questions about production and the structuring of markets” (Hallowes and Munnik 2008, 116). As Liboiron (2012, 206) emphasizes, “one of the major scalar fallacies in environmentalism … is that systemic environmental degradation is created, and can be combated, through individual consumer choice.”
Why is this a fallacy? Because individual action cannot possibly scale up to the level of the current plastics pollution crisis. Particularly when acting individually, consumers have little power over the volume of virgin content in new plastic products, the kinds of unlabelled toxicants introduced into plastics production and recycling processes, the fast-increasing volumes of plastics produced each year, and the kinds of synthetic fabrics produced and traded around the world. Individual consumers also hold little power over the tire dust, flecks of plastic road paint, and microfibres that are unintentionally released to accumulate in the biosphere and that are not captured in waste management systems. The negative externalities of plastics are not the results of irresponsible consumer behaviour. They are not the results of littering or poor consumption choices. Plastics pollution is the result of a failing global plastics economy, one that does not account for negative socio-ecological externalities.
Some of the contributors to this volume apply the term “litter.” In some places, this is because it denotes a different kind of materiality and human activity. “Litter” is also often used because it is the most familiar term (for the reasons noted above). However, wherever it is used in this book, the intention of the authors differs dramatically from that of plastics industry messaging. We, as editors, prefer the term “pollution” because it draws attention to the various forms that plastics can take. This term captures not just the pieces of discarded plastic that we can see, but also the tiny plastic fragments that leach toxicants, adsorb other pollutants, and interact with other materials and biological forms in often novel ways that produce unexpected results. We also think that the term “pollution” is more relevant to the content of this book since the term “pollutant” encapsulates not only the physical and visible form but also the chemical, gaseous, socio-political, and energetic qualities and potentials of plastics. “Pollution” also often implies a grander scale than “littering” (e.g., air, sound, or light pollution), and it is most likely to be attributed to an industrial source. However, mere use of the term “pollution” does not automatically imply industry responsibility in all cases. For example, in a media analysis of environmental pollution, Hook et al. (2017) found that the state blamed Japanese citizens rather than industry for unsuccessfully avoiding or mitigating the risks posed by “pollution.”
Many contributors to this volume sit within science and technology studies (STS). STS reconciles the socio-political, technical, and scientific practices that underpin the physical and chemical considerations of plastics as pollution and concludes that no claim to scientific validity exists outside social and political debate. The contributions in this book emphasize plastics as sociocultural, political, and processual, detailing the instability and unpredictability of plastics as evidenced in their physical, socio-political, and chemical entanglements. This is a shift away from the ways in which plastics and other materials have been treated historically as stable, inert, and asocial objects. This also calls for attention to the specific material affordances of the plastics in question and their contextual relations. In other words, this calls for the kind of nuance and specificity often absent from homogenized claims regarding plastics as “bad” polluting actors frequently accompanied by equally problematic assertions that specific actions aimed at reducing the use of plastics are the solution.
The production, recycling, burning, burying, and otherwise discarding of plastics frequently involve social justice issues rarely exposed publicly. The Basel Convention working group first used the term “waste colonialism” in 1989. Then, in 1992, Jim Puckett of Greenpeace coined the term “toxic colonialism.” These expressions are most commonly used to describe how more developed countries dump their hazardous wastes into less developed countries. For example, as illustrated in Chapter 3 of this volume, Indigenous communities are disproportionately exposed to the harms of plastics pollution. Meaningful responses to the plastics crisis require a specific focus on the liveliness of plastics and the ways that they become enrolled in a wide range of physical, chemical, and socio-political assemblages. One size does not fit all.
Whether intentional or not, the negative impacts of plastics pollution can be felt immediately and travel thousands of kilometres away from the source. The externalization of environmental harms from affluent areas to poorer communities, states, and regions is frequently associated with neoliberal globalization. Neoliberal globalization is partly characterized by the minimization of investment costs (by not accounting for negative environmental and social externalities), individualizing responsibility for environmental health (thereby distracting attention from the major offenders like the multi-hundred-billion-dollar petrochemical industry), and the fetishization of economic growth.
The first section of this book introduces a range of concerns about plastics as “pollution” in terms of marine and human health (Chapters 1 and 2) before considering the unequal distributions of those harms (Chapter 3) and problematizing straightforward narratives of plastics as “pollution” (Chapter 4).
Chapter 1 is a collaboration between marine scientists Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson and psychologist Sabine Pahl. It provides an overview of the problems associated with marine plastics pollution. The authors also explore the motivational factors most likely to influence positive environmental behavioural change and emphasize that education and awareness-raising programs will continue to be fruitless without working concurrently to address the multiple systemic weaknesses in the global plastics economy. This requires an integrated, interdisciplinary, and intersectoral approach coupled with the recognition that marine plastics pollution is terrestrial in origin. This chapter is the first of many in this volume to reference the importance of scale when understanding and responding to plastics pollution. Among the scales noted here are quantities of litter, time scale, and national and global responses.
In Chapter 2, “Slow Violence: The Erosion of Plastic Marine Debris and of Human Health,” Sasha Adkins invites readers to consider the increasing volumes and pathways of plastics and plastics-related toxicants entering human bodies. The chapter draws attention to the gradual and often invisible harms wrought on humans by every life stage of plastic products in addition to outlining the connections among plastics, fossil fuels, and climate change.
Chapter 3, “How Seabirds and the Incorporation of Indigenous Science Illustrate the Legacies of Plastics Pollution,” is a collaboration between marine biologists Stephanie Borrelle and Jennifer Provencher and environmental and Indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata (of the Ngāti Porou Māori tribe). It explores how Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by marine plastics pollution because of their reliance on seabirds and other marine species for food. The authors present a strong case for the importance of culturally appropriate collaborations between Indigenous groups and researchers in deepening understandings of the lived experiences of marine pollution set in historical, geographical, and culturally specific contexts.
Chapter 4, the final chapter in this section, Sven Bergmann’s “Dawn of the Plastisphere: An Experiment with Unpredictable Effects,” explores the material politics of marine plastics pollution, examining how the category of microplastics is not merely descriptive; the term “microplastics” performatively affects how plastics pollution is understood and made visible. Bergmann also questions the notion of plastics as pollutants when plastics debris is considered a “plastisphere”: the porous surfaces of marine plastics pollution, where a range of microbial life flourishes. The chapter troubles the false dichotomy of bad versus good that permeates plastics discourse by showing readers that plastics are not hazardous to all life; they can be home to unique microbial ecologies.
This section of the book directs the reader’s attention to the intergenerational, deep-time, and multi-scale implications of the use of plastics. The material impacts of plastics over geological time scales are rarely contemplated within political discourse. The use of non-renewable forms of energy in the production of plastics emphasizes the links among plastics, the geopolitics of fossil fuel extraction, and anthropogenic climate change. Approximately 8 percent of all extracted oil is required to produce plastics (Hopewell, Dvorak, and Kosior 2009, 2115), and as noted earlier the global share of oil used to produce plastics will increase dramatically over the coming years. From the fossilized remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago, humans produce disposable items such as plastic coffee cups and bags used for just a few minutes, yet their geological presence will remain perceptible for millennia.
This resonates with concerns associated with the discourse of the Anthropocene, in which human actions are understood to have marked a new geological epoch. In the Anthropocene, planetary ecological conditions are forecast to be far less hospitable for humans and most other life forms. The impacts on the Earth system, which will be perceptible in the geological strata of the planet for millions of years, include changes to greenhouse gas concentrations (Crutzen 2002); perturbations in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; the presence of radionuclides from the use of nuclear weapons (Waters et al. 2015); a soaring rate of species extinction equalled only during the handful of mass extinction events in the planet’s geological record; and the accumulation of immense quantities of non-biodegradable techno-fossils such as plastics (Taffel 2016).
The concept of the Anthropocene has been both enthusiastically adopted and heavily critiqued. Proponents contend that a new geological epoch that emphasizes recent human action as a dominant factor in ecological change can be a motivating factor in precipitating the kinds of radical socio-ecological change required to address multiple and entangled environmental crises, such as climate change, deforestation, reductions in biodiversity, and use of plastics (e.g., Lewis and Maslin 2018; Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill 2007). Critics, in contrast, advocate that describing Anthropos—the human species—as the central figure of geological change repeats the mistake of universalizing diverse activities, declaring that “we” are all equally to blame for crises perpetuated primarily by particular groups of privileged people. This has led to the counterdiscourse of the Capitalocene, which argues that the economic and power relations associated with capitalism rather than humanity per se should be identified as the key actor associated with these changes (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016; Moore 2015). A related line of critique addresses the anthropocentricism of the Anthropocene. The new materialist turn in the social sciences and humanities asserts that humans never act alone and that assemblages, or relational networks, include a multiplicity of species (Haraway 2016; Tsing 2015; Van Dooren, Kirksey, and Münster 2016). Agency, traditionally the preserve of the rational human agent, is extended to matter of all varieties (Bennett 2009; Latour 2004) to propose that things are lively sites, always in the process of acting with other things. Through this aperture, the problem is not humans in general, but certain privileged groups of humans working in concert with computers, cars, coal, cows, and other entities.
Plastics are a useful case study for new materialist conceptions of distributed agency since they are designed materials that never remain within their temporal and spatial boundaries. References to the “end of life” of plastics (in terms of fate and management) are misleading; there is no end of life for polymer resins, synthetic fibres, monomers, and additives. While many contributors to this book mention the circular economy, as the book illustrates, plastics are notorious for their unintentional releases into the environment at every stage of their life cycles. It is, therefore, unlikely that a circular economy will ever be able to eliminate all of the negative externalities of the kinds of plastics currently produce, even if the volume of production could be dramatically reduced. Plastics act in and with the world in often indeterminate ways and with no end in sight as they become implicated in other things to create novel and often surprising ecologies. Plastics exemplify how matter is leaky, active, and transformative rather than static, placid, and inert. But what does this activity mean for human agency and for the ability of concerted collective political action to substantively reduce the harmful impacts of plastics? The chapters in this section of the book grapple with these questions about scale that speak to the politics of plastics-related assemblages and their materiality.
In Chapter 5, “Plastiglomerate: Plastics, Geology, and the New Materialism of the Anthropocene,” Christina Gerhardt discusses the formation of “plastiglomerates”: fused assemblages of plastic, rock, wood, and other materials. The chapter provides an overview of how plastics, the Anthropocene, and climate change are not separable phenomena but fundamentally entangled. Gerhardt explores the deep time of plastics, tracing their sources back to the fossil fuels whose combustion threatens to unleash catastrophic climate change on ecological systems as the twenty-first century unfolds. This chapter resonates with that of Borrelle, Provencher, and Ngata in arguing that many inhabitants of the South Pacific region have contributed little to climate change and the global plastics crisis, yet they are among the most affected by them. Consequently, Gerhardt argues, we need to reorganize power structures radically in order to ensure climate, economic, and ethnic justice.
The three subsequent chapters in this section build upon these themes by using focused case studies that extend the analyses of materiality, scale, and persistence that Gerhardt introduces. In Chapter 6, “Dressed in Plastic: The Persistence of Polyester Clothes,” Elyse Stanes focuses on one of the intimate everyday uses of plastics that is easy to forget: its ubiquitous presence in our wardrobes. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in Sydney, Australia, Stanes outlines the material production of polyester and its association with fast fashion and contemporary cultures of consumption alongside new social and ontological relationships arising from the release of polyester microfibres when they are shed during machine washing. Because the smallest microfibres cannot be captured in washing machine or water treatment plant filters, they find their way into aquatic environments. Again, we see how plastics are not neatly bounded objects but participate in ongoing material flows, leading Stanes to describe them as “assembled materials in transition.” These materials escape waste management systems and alter social and ecological systems across multiple spatial and temporal scales.
Tridibesh Dey and Mike Michael, in Chapter 7, “Caring for the Multiple Cares of Plastics,” draw from Dey’s experiences working as an engineer for an NGO in India. The chapter explores how plastics are entangled with activism, caste, class, masculinity, and religion. The authors discuss the materiality of plastic in terms of its ability to be shaped or moulded (its plasticity), and they argue that we need to be attentive to how we care for the socio-ecological impacts of plastics. Their work combines postcolonial theory with the ecological politics of new materialism toward a “plasticity of care” and raises further questions about the perceived moralities of plastics as inherently good or bad.
In Chapter 8, the final chapter in this section, Laura McLauchlan further explores how questions of care are complicated by the multiplicity of spatial and temporal scales at which plastics operate. Drawing from fieldwork on hedgehog conservation in Bristol, United Kingdom, McLauchlan focuses on how the ideology of neoliberalism, which propounds action to be the domain of individual consumers, masks the massively distributed assemblages that connect humans and non-humans. Such connectivity, however, does not guarantee positive outcomes for actors such as hedgehogs. Indeed, globalized consumer capitalism, in which consumer demand is manipulated through mass marketing, has created plastics-strewn urban environments hazardous to many forms of life, including hedgehogs. McLauchlan argues that the only way to create infrastructural changes that offer habitable environments for a wide variety of biotic actors is by focusing on collective systems of care and exploring how humans form assemblages with others.
Addressing the pollution and persistence associated with plastics requires political engagement. The final section of the book foregrounds strategies and tactics that explicitly seek to intervene in the global plastics crisis, ranging from technological fixes, through activism and art, to international policy. Mediated representations such as photographs, artworks, and documentary films can have significant impacts on behavioural change and environmental activism. A notable example is Chris Jordan’s photographs in his collection Midway: Message from the Gyre (Flannery 2009). Jordan’s photographs are dominated by brightly coloured small plastic items lying in the bellies of decomposing birds. His images are regularly cited as inspiring individual and group action. One of the contributors to this book, Stephanie Borrelle, considers Jordan’s work a catalyst for action: “When I saw Chris Jordan’s photograph of a dead albatross with a pile of plastic pieces inside it for the first time … it led me to social action and directed my scientific career. I now spend my life trying to make a positive difference fighting plastic pollution—I am an average person” (cited in Morton 2018). A surge of documentaries on plastics pollution has also had a significant impact on public awareness of the crisis. In particular, the documentary series Blue Planet II (BBC 2017), featuring Sir David Attenborough, inspired the parent company, the British Broadcasting Corporation, to ban all single-use plastics by 2020 (Leary 2018). The series has also had a significant global impact on the public, galvanizing thousands to reject single-use plastics, to conduct online research on the harms of marine plastics pollution, and to engage in discussions on the topic in social media. The exposure afforded by Blue Planet II and the public support that it has generated have been key to the enactment of legislation such as bans on bags and certain other single-use plastics. Indeed, this newfound visibility of plastics as a global environmental crisis is one of the reasons that, as editors, we believe Plastic Legacies makes a timely contribution.
Alongside the growth in media representation and public concern have been increases in scientific and government interest in the environmental impacts of plastics. In 2015, the European Union funded €7.5 million for microplastics research. Marine plastics pollution was also highlighted as a priority at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in June 2015 in Germany. The G7 Leaders’ Declaration acknowledged the global risks posed by marine plastics pollution, particularly to marine and coastal life, ecosystems, and human health. The statement called for actions and solutions and stressed the need to address the sources and the removal of legacy pollution where possible, as well as education, research, and outreach (UNEP 2016). The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals offer a multilateral and integrated approach to global pollution, and most recently the United Nations Environmental Assembly coordinated member states to contribute to resolutions addressing global pollution. As several of the chapters here emphasize, for effective action to tackle the global plastics crisis, we must have effective international legislative frameworks.
The potentials and pitfalls of politics, communications, and the global plastics crisis form the theme of this final section of the book. In Chapter 9, “Communicative Capitalism, Technological Solutionism, and The Ocean Cleanup,” Sy Taffel considers how plastics are integral to digital telecommunications technologies and simultaneously key tools for addressing the issues of plastics pollution. Taffel explores how digital technologies and plastics share a logic of convenient overconsumption that has deleterious environmental effects. This consumer-driven logic is connected to an ideology of technological solutionism in which digital innovations are touted as a panacea for the ecological impacts of consumer capitalism. Taffel uses The Ocean Cleanup as a case study to illustrate this logic. The Ocean Cleanup is a technology focused NGO that claims it will rid the oceans of plastic. Taffel argues that such projects detract from the messy but necessary process of politics. The Ocean Cleanup suggests fallaciously that “ideologically neutral” technology will resolve ecological crises, thereby allowing overconsumption to continue unabated.
In Chapter 10, Johanne Tarpgaard follows the work of Bruno Latour to examine how practice-based science might influence processes and pragmatics in the public domain with the potential for social and legislative change. Tarpgaard draws from ethnographic fieldwork to examine the practices of Danish NGO Plastic Change, one of the most influential organizations in Denmark in increasing public awareness of plastics pollution. She describes some of the ways in which Plastic Change combines witnessing, storying, and imagery that reify neoliberal logics and reinforce flawed scientific practices. However, she argues that the same flawed logics and practices might surprise us by contributing to the kinds of broader systemic shifts needed to respond powerfully to the global plastics crisis.
In Chapter 11, “Plastics Talk/Talking Plastics: The Communicative Power of Plasticity,” Deirdre McKay and her colleagues outline insights gleaned from two action research projects conducted in the Philippines and United Kingdom. They explore how plastics communicate important messages about class, gender, and identity formation of the subaltern. The authors outline how global attempts to respond to plastics pollution often neglect the socio-cultural differences between social groups, the important messages that plastics “speak” to us about including gender and Indigenous politics, and the cultural subversion of global waste. The authors emphasize that we need to learn to be attentive to the messages that plastics communicate if we are to respond to plastics pollution in empowering and meaningful ways.
Chapter 12, the final chapter, from Trisia Farrelly, Ian Shaw, and John Holland, is entitled “Redressing the Faustian Bargains of Plastics Economies.” The chapter outlines the need for a legally binding international treaty on plastics pollution based on the successes of the Montréal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances. The authors emphasize that such a global instrument must focus on prevention and the full life cycle of plastics from extraction to recovery of legacy plastics. The chapter foregrounds the hazardous, ambiguous, and unpredictable nature of plastics’ physical, toxic, and biological entanglements and consequently argues that legislation should focus on preventing the most hazardous plastics and that this determination should be based on the precautionary principle.
This book brings together a broad range of thinkers and doers including social anthropologists, political ecologists, geographers, activists, and natural scientists to lay out the hard facts, set them in a human context, and explore political ramifications. We thought this was a logical and simple approach to addressing ‘Plastic Legacies’ until it became clear that we all speak very different languages. This led to a journey of understanding and learning that the editors of this volume simply did not expect. We are now much the wiser, have discarded our preconceptions, and even speak a little of each other’s strange languages. Most importantly, we now better understand the breadth of issues relating to ‘Pollution, Persistence, and Politics’. We hope that our readers will, like us, understand the issues better after they turn the final page of this book. We also hope those fighting to prevent plastic pollution ensure they conserve their energy for the long haul and remain persistent, and, very importantly, that the key messages conveyed here find their way to politicians.
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Imogen E. Napper, Sabine Pahl, and Richard C. Thompson
Modern lifestyles generate considerable quantities of waste on a daily basis. Marine litter (also called marine debris) is solid waste that has been discharged into the marine environment resulting from activities on land or at sea. Plastics represent a substantial fraction of the municipal waste stream as well as marine litter. Plastics are lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and versatile materials that bring many societal benefits, especially in health care, agriculture, transportation, construction, and packaging (PlasticsEurope 2016). Given the durability of plastics, they also have considerable persistence in the environment or a landfill. This is a growing issue; just a few decades ago much of our waste was composed of organic, degradable materials, yet in the past number of years we have produced more plastic items than in the entire century before.
There has been a substantial increase in plastics production, from 5 million tonnes globally in the 1950s to over 300 million tonnes today (Andrady and Neal 2009; PlasticsEurope 2015). The use of plastics varies among countries, and global production is likely to continue and even to increase substantially over the next few decades. Despite the durability of plastics, the main uses are in relatively short-lived applications such as packaging, which accounts for about 40 percent of all production. Although packaging plays an important role in protecting food, drink, and other items, and thus reduces damage and wastage of products, it has also led to a rapid accumulation of persistent plastics waste.
There is increasing awareness of the accumulation of litter in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments from a variety of sources (Eerkes-Medrano, Thompson, and Aldridge 2015). The importance of the sources varies considerably geographically, but on a global scale it is widely recognized that most litter in the marine environment comes from land-based actions such as general littering, dumping of waste and loss during waste collection, and inappropriately managed landfill sites. Litter from shipping and other maritime activities contributes a much smaller proportion (Jambeck et al. 2015; Mehlhart and Blepp 2012).
It has been suggested that the accumulation and fragmentation of marine litter have led to one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet (Barnes et al. 2009). This debris is widely seen in the environment, where it has accumulated at the sea surface (Law et al. 2010), on the shorelines of even the most remote islands (Barnes 2005), in the deep sea (Bergmann and Klages 2012; Woodall et al. 2014), and in Arctic sea ice (Obbard et al. 2014).
Globally, about 75 percent of all marine litter consists of various plastics, with other materials—such as glass, metal, and paper—contributing much smaller amounts. Even though the large majority of marine litter is plastics, the time scales for the degradation of plastic items are not known with certainty and will depend on the chemical nature of the material, the characteristics of the environment in which they persist, and the manner in which degradation is measured (Andrady and Neal 2009). However, it is clear that, from the substantial quantities of litter entering aquatic habitats daily, it presents a range of negative economic and environmental consequences (Jambeck et al. 2015; Werner et al. 2016).
The accumulation of marine litter has been identified as a major global conservation issue and a key priority for research (Sutherland et al. 2010). It has also been identified as a major issue by the United Nations Environment Assembly and in the G7 Leaders’ Declaration of 2015 (GESAMP 2016; UNEP 2017; Werner et al. 2016). There is broad recognition that marine litter presents a substantial problem, so the key action must be to reduce the quantity entering the water from the land. In addition, we need to define further the scale of the problem in terms of quantities of litter and types of impact, but in our view there is already enough evidence for people to take action to stem the flow of plastics into the environment. In this chapter, we consider the problem and some of the solutions currently being implemented or considered.
Plastics debris in marine environments has been found to affect a wide range of organisms as a consequence of entanglement and ingestion (Gall and Thompson 2015; Sutherland et al. 2010; Wang et al. 2016). Over 700 species of marine organisms have been reported to encounter plastics debris, which can result in severe physical harm and death or have more subtle effects on behaviour and ecological interaction (e.g., the ability to escape from predators or migrate) (Gall and Thompson 2015). A range of sub-lethal effects that have not yet been recognized is also likely.
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