Illustration by Daia - Diana Grigore
Notes for an Anthropology of Plastics
Nowadays fossil-based plastics are ubiquitous. They are in our clothes, buildings, cars, and roads. Accumulations of very small pieces of plastics, called micro-plastics and nano-plastics, are present everywhere in nature and various organisms, including humans, with effects whose gravity we are only now beginning to understand. In addition, fossil-based plastics are almost indestructible, being considered the “new immortals,” next to other man-made materials such as cement or radioactive waste. Then, in our “plasticized” world, how do we relate to plastics and how do we learn to approach its dangerous and almost eternal presence? These are some of the questions of an anthropology of plastics that is now beginning to emerge in the academia. A possible answer, based on ongoing ethnographic research, starts from the notion of “regime of value” proposed by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. Since their entry into Romanian homes, timidly in the years after the Second World War, and then more and more frequently, plastics have been understood and experienced through different symbolic and economic regimes of value. Currently, various regimes co-exist, the most recent ones recasting the value of plastics in both positive and negative terms.
Magdalena Crăciun is Lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from University College London. She has done long-term field research in Romania and Turkey, being interested in material culture and (plastic) materials, clothing and fashion, branding and counterfeiting, subjectivity, and the middle class. She has published Islam, Faith and Fashion: The Islamic Fashion Industry in Turkey (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), Material Culture and Authenticity: Fake Branded Fashion in Europe (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014) and articles in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Journal of Material Culture, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, World Art, and Eastern European Politics & Societies.
Daia - Diana Grigore
Daia Grigore is a graphic designer and an illustrator based in Bucharest, Romania, where she finished her studies in Graphic Design and Visual Communications. Her works can take many forms, from static to animatic, from digital to analog, flat or 3D. Among the stylistic particularities, one can mention the use of vibrant colors and the use of fluid lines and organic shapes. She finds her inspiration in nature, in children’s drawings and in little chaotic day-to-day happenings.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
In the summer of 2021, on a beach in Constanța, close to the water, I found a small neon green toy fish made of hard plastic.
I took a photo of it.
I could have written “I immortalised it.” Yet, this verb, meaning to make something live forever in people’s memory, is not a suitable choice in the case of fossil-based plastics. First, the raw materials that are used today for most of the plastics are oil, gas, and coal, that is, substances that appeared millions of years ago through the transformation of organic matter. Secondly, these plastics are almost indestructible, being considered the “new immortals,” along with other man-made materials such as cement or radioactive waste. The complete disappearance of plastics is estimated to take around 100,000 years. Thirdly, plastic things fade relatively easily from people’s affective memory. Many of the plastic objects in our lives are destined to have a short life. The plastic bag, for example, is used for a limited period, sometimes the time it takes to transport our vegetables from the market to home. In addition, plastic things are ready-mades and can rarely, if ever, be repaired. For these reasons, generative relations through which people and objects mutually construct each other, such as making and repairing, are relatively rare in the case of plastic things.
I photographed the plastic fish toy because it looked in danger of being claimed by the sea.
The seawater would accelerate its disintegration, first turning it into microplastics, and then into nanoplastics. The toy would thus make its contribution to the amount of plastic of these sizes that is currently accumulating almost everywhere. These are the problematic transformations that scientists have been focussing on for some time, trying to understand how they harm environments and organisms, including humans.
That I found the plastic fish’s presence on the beach problematic was not quite random. I have recently become interested in plastics and how anthropologists might approach these ubiquitous materials. An anthropology of plastic is now beginning to emerge in the academia, trying to answer questions such as how do people relate to plastics? And how do people learn to approach their harmful and almost eternal presence?
In the following lines, I will provide a possible answer to these questions, drawing upon my ongoing ethnographic research. First, a clarification is in order. There are countless types of plastics, with diverse origins, chemical compositions, and properties. Yet, in common parlance, these different materials are designated by the singular “plastic.” I use as such in the text. My interlocutors rarely used the plural, “plastics,” and usually to refer to differences that were felt sensorially and discovered through use, and much less through knowledge of material properties. The most common expressions used to emphasise these differences are “plastics are of many kinds and qualities” and “there are plastics, and there are plastics.”
Mundane engagements with plastics, including with the green toy fish that I found on the beach, are shaped by different regimes of value.
The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has proposed the notion of regime of value, namely a framework that in a specific socio-cultural context defines what value means and what is valuable. Ethnographic research into the understandings and practices developed around plastics substantiates the theoretical argument that in any context different regimes of value can co-exist and relate to each other in various ways.
Since their entry in Romanian households—somewhat timidly in the first decades after the Second World War, the pace increasing starting with the 1980s—plastics have been understood and experienced through different symbolic and economic regimes of value.
During socialism, this material was enthusiastically adopted by the ideologues of the system for the way in which it enabled the objectification of their vision of scientific and technological progress. Modern plastic materials quickly came to be considered ideal for the ideological and material construction of the socialist “good life.”
My older interlocutors recalled the enthusiasm with which they and their parents started wearing synthetic fabrics in the 1960s and 1970s, delighted by the convenience of wash-and-wear and their durability. Ramona (mid-sixties) marvelled at her own ability to describe, after so many years, acrylic blouses, polyester dresses, and PNA (polyacrylonitrile) sweaters. “Ah, how could I forget? When I was a student, there was this craze for plastic raincoats. A raincoat was something elegant! You see, plastic has not always been cheap. It had its moments of glory, too!” she added. Two objects from that period are remembered for their novelty, namely, net curtains—appreciated for the diversity of the models they came in and the ease to clean and maintain—and plastic flowers, which either enchanted or repulsed. In the 1980s, as Alina (mid-sixties) pointed out, “an era of plastic usage [had] begun.” These people, especially those who lived in apartment blocks, spoke of the growing presence of plastic objects in everyday life. They mentioned a huge variety of objects, from PVC flooring, net curtains, bowls, washing-up bowls, children’s bathtubs, potties, toys, kitchenware, table oilcloth, dustpans, brushes, buckets, bags, clothes, purses, waterproof coats, waterproof boots, flip flops, book covers, or pens.
They also talked about unpleasant and disappointing experiences with plastics. Such experiences are also described in consumption studies in Eastern European societies. During the socialist period, consumers had to make do with things that were made of low-quality plastics, including older and less refined types, especially PVC. Ideological, material, and technological limitations impacted the regional production of plastics to the extent that in some cases the plastic that used to objectify modernity was outdated. However, growing familiarity with the quality plastics that were revolutionising consumption in the West would support, I argue, the conceptualisation of plastics as modern materials.
These materials came to be known and appreciated as durable, hygienic, safe, light, smooth, waterproof, washable, not subject to rusting or warping, and resistant to wear. In addition, the role of these objects in easing domestic work and beautifying the home and wardrobe was highly valued. “Plastic has made life much easier,” emphasized Ligia (mid-sixties). In other words, plastics have come to be valued for their contribution to “a good life” of modern comforts.
In the years that followed the collapse of state socialism, the association of plastics with the “good life” remained unchanged, though the emphasis shifted to prosperity. Throughout her childhood, Ana (late twenties) thought that “… plastic was for the richer people. … To have plastic was something superior at that time, it was the path to a better social standing! You had access to what was modern, to what was happening in the present.” This conceptualisation of plastics was to change, however, under the impact of a deluge of plastic objects, namely, the low-quality consumer goods imported from Turkey and China and the transient plastic objects—such as plastic packaging and single-use plastics—that flooded the market.
Since the 1990s, low-end globalisation, involving modest capital and semi-legal or illegal transnational transactions, has brought affordable low-quality objects to Romania.
Their evaluation as low quality was not only based on direct experience with non-functional and short-lived objects, but was also culturally anticipated to be so, through an equating of their “Easternness” with lack of quality, in contrast to a Western origin valued as superior. Even today, expressions such as “made in Turkey” (Ro, turcisme) and “made in China” (Ro, chinezisme) are pejorative terms used to signal questionable quality.
After the 2000s, the form of globalisation associated with the official and spectacular circuits of capital, especially through malls and supermarkets, has familiarised Romanian consumers with disposable or short-lived consumer goods. Many of those I spoke to describe the entry of these objects, and especially plastic packaging, into the Romanian market as an “invasion.” Adrian (early fifties) insisted that I wrote down that “it was in the 2000s that this madness began. … Since then, food products, water, juices, oil, alcoholic beverages, really everything is wrapped in plastic … Now there is too much plastic. Now everything is made of plastic.” Or In Ligia’s words (early fifties), “Nowadays, we are drowning in plastic.” She also added:
Now plastic objects are everywhere. You don’t give them any importance anymore, you’ve got used to them. They’re goods of very short use, you don’t find a use for them. After drinking the juice or the water, you throw away that bottle. What to do with it? We used to wash the bags, reuse them until they fell apart. Now you buy it, you throw it away. Ah, you can put trash in it, but you still throw it away.
The encounter with this avalanche of plastic objects that are of little value (low-priced and low-quality) and/or finite value, disposable, played a crucial role in the reconceptualisation of plastic as a cheap, worthless material. Furthermore, according to the normative expectations of consumer culture, not only what is owned but also what is thrown away acts as a concrete indicator of the “good life.”
As I have shown, plastic has been understood and experienced through different symbolic and economic regimes of value. Experiences with various plastic objects and different types of plastics have enabled these consumers to recognise and/or articulate these value regimes and, consequently, valorise them as modern and, more recently, devalue them as cheap and easy to replace.
Nevertheless, in recent years, other regimes of value have begun to play a role in shaping people’s relation to plastics. A global discourse, which demonises plastics as dystopian materials, has been circulating around the world, often digitally via social media. Plastics have come to be understood as pollutants, which permeate molecules, bodies and environments and harm in ways yet to be known, and as matter that accumulates rather than degrades. This discourse pleads for the reduction, avoidance and, above all, elimination of plastics (the observations at the beginning of this text show how utopian such a plea is). In Romania, the discourse also manifests itself through initiatives to raise awareness of the ills of plastics and plastic pollution, from ecological art shows and environmental education programs to clean-up campaigns on rivers and in the Danube Delta and the promotion of selective waste collection and plastic recycling.
New regimes of value are articulated through and in reaction to this discourse of demonisation. They reinvest plastics with value. More precisely, the re-valorisation takes places through “the negation of a negation,” to borrow anthropologist Nancy Munn’s expression.
By negation, I mean the understanding of plastics as worthless. “The negation of a negation” turns worthlessness into worth. The outcome is re-valorisation as: (1) resource (positive value), which can be reused, repurposed, and recycled; and (2) danger (negative value), which requires all actors, in their various capacities and positions of power, and not only consumers, to be aware of the harm that plastics cause to human and non-human life and find means to reduce these risks.
Consumers recognise and/or articulate for themselves these new regimes of value. In one case, this recognition and/or articulation develops through experience with waste infrastructure and exposure to debates about the reduction of plastics, selective collection, and recycling of plastic waste. In the other case, this happens not through direct experience with materials and objects—except, perhaps, repeated observations of the very slow transformations of plastic things scattered in nature—but through the accumulation of information about the negative impact of plastics and exposure to their moral reframing as inherently bad.
These new perspectives on plastics question their contribution to achieving the “good life.” For some Romanian consumers, the use of plastics has been tainted by their negative effects. Plastics then no longer have a place in a “good life,” especially in a life where people recognise the moral rewards of sustainable consumption and, moreover, a life whose goodness does not come from consumerism, but from its ethical dimension.
In the story, the fisherman catches a goldfish that can grant three wishes. In our reality, the Anthropocene or the Plasticene as we call it today, we can find a neon green plastic fish on the seashore. What wishes could it fulfil?
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
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