Beyond Plasticity

by Tridibesh Dey

Plastics are everywhere, and plasticity is a concept frequently deployed to think of/with plastic’s material and more-than-material possibilities. As the specter of plastic and its debris loom upon populations and environments, this review ponders upon the limits of plasticity.

Jajiwal is a village by the river, where agrarian work was practised for generations. Now situated at the peripheries of the rapidly expanding Jodhpur city in the western state of Rajasthan, India, the narrow river flowing through Jajiwal has run dry. With the uncertainty and unruliness of monsoon, farming cycles have reduced, and most landed families have given up on agriculture. Sons and daughters have left the village in pursuit of alternative careers or moved by marriage. A state highway cuts through the village and connects it to centers of industry and commerce. Staple food – grains of wheat, bajra (pearl millets), daal, rice, oil, and spices – now come to the village neatly packaged in plastic. As drinking water is increasingly difficult to source, women walk hours on desert sand to distant deep wells. Families who can afford it, buy water in bulk containers made of polythene terephthalate – PET, readily available from neighbouring shops. Upper caste residents, typically landowners, have started running retail business in their premises, while the landless – typically, Dalits (former untouchables and socially outcast) – find precarious underpaid work in a radically altered agrarian economy. They work in shops, carry heavy merchandise, clean shops, and the residential premises of patrons, removing and burning plastic waste. Plastic packaged commodity pour in regularly by the highway to replenish and sustain the village economy.

When I visited Jajiwal eight years ago, as an engineer, invited by a local activist group to advise on plastic waste management technology, discarded plastic packaging and their residues were a common sight in and around the village, as everywhere else along the way. The panchayat – village-level government – lacked resources to clean up, without state subsidy or financial support from the industry. Left to fend for themselves, human and more-than-human residents in the landscape were left sinking in a downstream plastic sink, becoming part of, trying to make sense of, the open-ended history of this persistent material.

Jajiwal enables us to appreciate the scale and complexity of the plastic problem. Indeed, plastic packaging protects food items, ensures secure transport and steady supply at a time of ecological precarity and reduced scale and quality of local production. Plastic enables, alongside, a commodification of essential items as part of a wider network of production, labour, quality control, valuation, and profit, which are in most parts distant and removed from Jajiwal. Residents at Jajiwal, in turn, are turned into consumers, dependent on these obscure supply chains, vulnerable to abusive price rise and low-quality staples. Poorer residents, especially those without strong social support like marginalized Dalits, are rendered even more precarious and vulnerable, often in the absence of regular state subsidy. Last, but not the least, there is the issue of accumulation of plastic discard and its physical-chemical residues over the landscape, open to bodily exposure.

Plastic is not a single material. Plastics are necessarily multiple, complex materials constituted by thousands of chemical compounds. They have a main skeleton based on chains – polymers – of various hydrocarbons, an abundant class of organic compounds, present in the bodies of the living and the dead, fossilized in the layers of the Earth’s crust. There are other constituent chemicals, including additives like phthalates, bisphenols and dyes added to impart specific capacities to the material, besides residues and accumulated substances. Most present plastics are synthetic – produced industrially at scale, especially post World War II. A darling of the petrochemical industry, plastics enjoy an unlimited supply of chemical raw materials, privileging power over markets and lobbies. Plastic is indissociable from profit.

“Plastic”, a Union Carbide employee, A. A. Boehm, writes in 1968, “is the commercial form of a polymer, …, modified to make them more perfectly suit the needs of a specific application”. Unlike naturally occurring materials like wood or metals, plastics are materials by design, custom-made for purpose, molecule by molecule (Bensaude Vincent, 2013). Material and product conceived together, plastics can be made into anything in theory, mimic any material quality and subvert natural resistances upon design. Roland Barthes penned an exuberant ode to the material in the 1950s. Plastic, he proclaims, is “the very idea of … infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible… less a thing than the trace of a movement”. Plastic’s “scope of … transformations”, Barthes adds, “gives man the measure of his power, the very itinerary of plastic gives him the euphoria of prestigious free-wheeling through Nature.” (Barthes, 1971: 110)

Quintessential, therefore, to a modernist vision of unbridled progress in capitalism and consumption, plastic does promise a certain social and economic democratization. Historian Jeffrey Meikle elaborates (1995), plastic enabled the masses to buy and use products once unaffordable, and to indulge in practices once purely aspired across class divides. In India, as in many countries of the developing world, plastics came in later – typically near the end of last millennium, but firmly caught on to industry and cultures of industrial consumption. Cultural historians Doron and Jeffrey write how plastics helped introduce items in India such as toothbrushes, kitchen white goods, cars, and how these items have been attuned to be more accessible, thus driving aspirations, helping create and sustain a burgeoning middle-class and lower-middle class into prominence (2018). Plastics are also key in developing ‘market devices’ that help create and expand markets (Muniesa et al., 2007; Hawkins et al., 2015; Dey, 2021). For example, plastic carrier bags enabled more purchasing, setting up convenient links between commerce and consumption. For women doing grocery, it engendered new freedoms in movement and socialization. For subsistence economies, different sized carrier bags enabled portioning, buying according to one’s means. The cheap procurement and re-use of durable packaging items also led to residual forms of consumption, favouring subsistence living and gendered caste experience. Plastic’s material mutability makes possible the design, batch-production and marketability of products and variants at scale, suitable to context and need, even enabling limited reuse (Dey, 2021).

In India, plastic’s infinite mutability has powered a socio-economic transition, like in other countries. After the relaxation of industrial and trade regulations in the late 80s, opening up economy to globalized capital and liberalized world orders, India gained status as an economic superpower. This is despite critiques of inequity, poor quality of life and lack of access to basic infrastructures. The country is among the fastest growing plastic producers, at par with China. Reliance Industries, a private company and India’s foremost ‘virgin’ plastics manufacturer and importer, is among the biggest manufacturers in the world (PlastIndia, 2022). Jajiwal village of the early 21st century bears witness, however, to the paradoxes of a plasticated capitalism.

Scholars have developed the concept of plasticity across practical contexts to denote a certain malleability of form and function, diversity of cultural and affective relations with matter, sometimes a potentially limitless amenability to change, regeneration, and effectuating utopian visions of mutability – material, practical, social, and political (Star, 1989; Malabou, 2005; Bensaude Vincent, 2013; McKay et al., 2020). But the concept of plasticity of plastics beseeches urgent revision. Here is why: 

One of the obvious counterpoints to the imagination of infinite mutability is the specter of immutability which characterizes the phenomenon of plastic waste. More than 9 billion tons of plastic matter have been manufactured globally, all of these linger in the environment in some form, more than 13 million tons of plastic matter end up in the oceans each year. With stable basic chemical bonds, massive scale, ubiquity, and speed of environmental proliferation, plastic material accumulates, sometimes in the order of thousands of years. Plastic is not plastic, in most cases, and plastic accumulation is a prominent narrative, increasingly current within concerned constituencies, globally.

But immutability does not cut through the twisted complexity of the plastic question. Indeed, post-use plastics are routinely mutated – for instance, into fuel, recycled into new products through ingenious, often-informal, enterprises. These mutabilities are key to waste remediation and must be acknowledged, not least for the mitigation of technical difficulties and biological hazards involved in socio-ecological harm reduction from plastic waste (Gill, 2009; Dey and Michael, 2021a, 2021b).

Furthermore, despite an apparent stability, plastic materials continue to leach, combine with other matter – including heavy metals, and compound into chemical cocktails, biological agglomerate ecologies and uncanny geological forms. As molecules from a once-bottle, a once-bag move and mingle in a living and changing earth, these constitute a dense undergrowth of mutabilities occurring ceaselessly, often imperceptibly, unknowably (Liboiron, 2016).

While these are open-ended transformations, many of these mutabilities may involve relative forms of muting. That is to say, they serve disabling functions, closing down possibilities for certain agents and ecologies, performing iterations of injustice. Think of petrochemical spills, leachates, fumes, and residues entering bodies in doses potent enough for endocrine disruption and a suite of long-term and generationally reproduced health issues. More durable plastic debris stick to body parts, organs, tissues, block circulation, weigh down bodies, literally choking, gagging, forms of life. Plastic debris slow down rivers, alter landscapes, cause floods, disrupt livelihoods, tourism. Muting capacities of plastics and its suite of chemicals are multiple, unfolding in diverse ways, progressively felt, and known.

The muting capacities of plastic materiality may be assembled in complex, networked ways. Plastic theorists and sociologists of Science and Technology Studies have drawn on the geometrical notion of topology, a non-Euclidean conception of space and time, where relation between points are immanent and emerging, not necessarily fixed or linear along pre-defined orders (Gabrys et al., 2013). For example, it is instructive to observe how plastic wastes immutability is not simply a failure of downstream waste management. On the contrary, immutability is a synthetically induced capacity, as Gay Hawkins and co-authors note (2015). Indeed, most plastic materials are durable because they are made to maintain integrity against trials of strength and a range of physico-chemical affinities under worldly conditions. These very qualities that make plastics valuable as/in specific products and devices also make them immutable in the environment, post-use.

Process philosophies, say after A. N. Whitehead (1929), or recently after Manuel de Landa (2011), tend to view matter and materiality as enactment of processes. According to STS theorist Mike Michael, plastic’s mutability is, therefore, conditional. The material capacities for change would draw on a variety of relations, for instance, from materials being deployed, their supply conditions, processing site, equipment and technical affordances, environmental and thermodynamic conditions, to knowledge relations, expertise, labour, incumbent legal environments, lobbying power, marketing, demand, etc. As such, plastic’s infinite mutability may only be a specific enactment of plasticity, where the topological relations between diverse elements of processes are consequential. Plasticity, as a concept, is therefore, plastic, its content and form vary across site and context, Michael argues (2013). Accordingly, even immutability, say of waste plastic debris, or limited mutabilities – say, of domestic plastic repurposing, would be specific enactments, unfolding relationally over processual contexts.

There are reasons to consider plastic’s potentials to mute as preconditional to conceptualizing plastic’s ontology. Of the key constituency of thousands of chemicals that are added by producers to make plastic matter suitably mutable for commerce, some 2,400 are classified as potentially toxic; some documented to have far-reaching health consequences for humans and non-humans, across generations, even at small doses (Dey et al., 2022). Plastic is not plastic without these chemicals, which leak, interact with other substances, and become complex chemical cocktails across plastic’s life cycle – from resource extraction to production, use situations, states of disposal and attempts of recovery. Potentials for toxicant exposure and harm are, therefore, ubiquitous as these chemicals persist.

There is again the need to address colonial land relations, processes of extraction – of labour and oil, and rights to expose and pollute, always already embedded within practical calculations and infrastructures that enact industrial plastics today, their abundance, and unfolding plasticity. Plastics are thus inextricably commercial and colonial (Liboiron, 2021).

Thinking topologically, the socio-material relations of violence enacting plastics go back to fossilized deep time, to colonial geopolitical and economic relations in the pasts but persist in the present. Environmental historian Rebecca Altman recounts how deep-sea copper telegraph networks – key to the British colonization project, needed to be insulated with gutta-percha, resulting in the clearing of gutta forests across South-East Asia in the late 19th century. Early plastics were produced with cheap, often bonded labour, disproportionately exposed to physico-chemical hazards in the factory (Altman, 2021). Workers continue to get exposed even today, with the range and scale of hazardous plastic chemicals having increased (Hardin et al. demonstrate this in an upcoming article). The predominant petrochemical sourcing of present plastics continues legacies of toxic exposure, starting right upstream, as evident, for instance, in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, home to predominantly Black and ethnic minorities with lineages in local plantations of the past (Ghosh, 2021; Davies, 2022). The lower Mississippi valley, is home now, of course, to the world’s largest plastic producers and petrochemical polluters. Present-day plastic production continues accelerated, with false promises of downstream remedy. In reality, containers full of plastic waste continue to be shipped to historically impoverished communities to clean up, an arrangement bound up for failure, leading to uneven redistributions of waste and unjust proliferation of potentially toxic chemicals. Waste importers tend to be once-colonized nation states, and those handling residues as a livelihood enterprise, working night and day, against meagre pay, are lower-caste, impoverished workers, often women and children (Altman and Dey, 2022).

Muting is a process often caked into structured social relations, yet their elaboration necessitates a nuanced expression, not the least of agency, as the example of commerce in plastic-packaged essentials at Jajiwal underscores. Here, vulnerability and environmental degradation are nested within a politics of necessity and choice, which in turn, furthers a broader politics of subjecthood to techno-commercial hegemony and reduction of choice.

As world leaders negotiate terms for a global plastic treaty – also to be enforced locally, policies across scales will need to acknowledge and address the vulnerabilities posed but also needs met within societies and economies by plastics. Who – which actors involved in plastic life cycles or within political structures – need to or are able to act is another key debate within a just and restorative responsibility politics. Any policy addressing the problem must take stock of violence and vulnerabilities, topologically, with critical historical awareness. To consider plastic’s relative capacities for muting, alongside transformative potentials, will be an ontological problem key in addressing the politics of plastics.

And we need better words and concepts to begin with, in preparation for a more just plastic politics. To address inherent, already incumbent relations and (im)possibilities at stake, words will matter. Plasticity may be too general, conveniently vague, and docile a terminology to describe and address a set of multiple materials and processual relations that preclude the rights to pollute, and to mute in their free-wheeling proliferation through natures and worlds.

Acknowledgement Note

Research was funded by the University of Exeter International Excellence Doctoral Scholarship. Writing up was conducted at Aarhus University, during a postdoctoral fellowship under the Project “Plastics and the Anthropocene” funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.



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