Article Alert! Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics

Max Liboiron, who studies plastics as a form of modern waste, has a new article out explaining why we must pay attention to the specific physical characteristics of the matter composing the discards at the heart of our studies of them.


These plastics were collected by BabyLegs in the Mystic River, Boston. The squares on the page are 1 cm x 1 cm.

The material specificities of different plastics make a difference. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is not  polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  One must treat them as more than a general category of ‘lively matter’. Thinking about marine plastics as islands leads to ineffective, even dangerous, solutions to be proposed. Thinking about them as confetti, soup, smog or miasma are, Liboiron argues, much more likely to lead to actions at scales appropriate to the problem of marine plastics. Liboiron’s article shows how seemingly mundane physical characteristics like size, density, weight, colour, and molecular composition have to be taken into account if representations are to be crafted that might launch or support actions adequate to the situations of pollution at hand. From the specific case of marine plastics, Liboiron’s paper offers a more general point that those of us who study discards need to remember to take seriously: How we represent the materiality of the discards we study has a crucial influence on the effectiveness of any action proposed to solve or mitigate their generation.

Liboiron, Max. 2015. ‘Redefining Pollution and Action: The Matter of Plastics’. Journal of Material Culture, December, 1359183515622966. doi:10.1177/1359183515622966.
If you do not have access to a library that provides access to Material Culture, you can access the publication here.
Using plastic pollution as a case study, this article shows how the material characteristics of objects – their density, their size, and the strength of their molecular bonds, among other traits – are central to their agency. The author argues that it is crucial to attend to the physical characteristics of matter if we, as researchers, are going to describe problems and contribute to solutions for ‘bad actors’ like pollutants. Plastics and their chemicals are challenging regulatory models of pollution, research methods, and modes of action because of their ubiquity, longevity, and scale of production. This article investigates how scientists researching plastic pollution are attempting to create a new model – or models – of pollution that account for the unpredictable and complex materialities of 21st-century pollutants, and how the Anthropocene has come to be a shorthand for our material understandings of moral transgressions, cherished boundaries, and good citizenship.

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