It’s hard to imagine now, but plastic was once touted as the embodiment of a democratic future. As Roland Barthes noted in his 1972 book Mythologies, with plastic “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized.”
This week I did some more research about the plastisphere and microplastics. When we picture what marine pollution looks like, many of us picture plastic bottles and bags bobbing in the Great Pacific garbage patch. The real threat to the ocean, though, take the form of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic (smaller than 1 mm) that come from cosmetics, industrial processes, and clothing. Primary microplastics are directly manufactured by companies, while secondary microplastics are generated by the breakdown of larger plastic debris like bottles or synthetic clothing.
I discovered the advocacy organization 5 Gyres, which works to restore healthy, plastic-free oceans. In a blog post, the organization outlines “the great divide” between the goals of environmental NGOs and the goals of plastic manufacturers when it comes to dealing with plastic pollution. Plastic producers generally seek to beef up recycling efforts and improve waste management, with the taxpayer bearing the cost. NGOs, on the other hand, push for smarter, better designs and the phasing-out of problematic plastics, with producers taking more responsibility for recovery through built-in incentives. For instance, the U.S. recently passed a ban of microbeads that will take effect in April 2016, an example of how legislation is still needed in this battle to clean up the ocean.
This blog post really got me thinking about one of the central problems with plastic pollution: We live in a society in which everything is viewed as disposable. Rather than take steps to reduce plastic production or phase out problematic plastics, plastic manufacturers continue to put the burden of responsibility on the consumer to figure out how to deal with our trash.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about disposable bodies, the human bodies we have collectively deemed not worth grieving. Judith Butler once asked: Which lives become grievable? Which losses become losses worth mourning? Michel Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics–the state’s exercise of power over physical/political bodies–becomes very relevant when you start talking about the impact of pollution on human bodies.
In his TED talk entitled “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones explores this link between “throwaway” materials and “throwaway” bodies. He argues that our proclivity for disposable products often makes low-income people pay. “Cancer Alley,” for instance, is a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana where petrochemical companies produce plastic, causing clusters of cancer cases among low-income residents.
“If you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet and what we’re doing to poor people,” he says, “you arrive at a very troubling, but also very helpful, insight: In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”
For my project, I want to explore the link between poverty and plastic pollution in the ocean. Marine pollution affects all of us when it enters into our food chain, but low-income populations in coastal regions are especially vulnerable. Plastic pollution can be particularly acute in countries where basic sanitation is barely existent and where recycling is the last thing people have time to worry about. I am imagining that my project will be a web-based piece that explores the different low-income countries and communities affected by plastic pollution.