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Evid03a


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Intractable plastic: responsibilities in ‘plasticized’ worlds I 
Convenors:
Patrick O'Hare (University of St Andrews)
Tridibesh Dey (University of Exeter)
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Stream:
Evidence
Sessions:
Thursday 1 April, 9:00-10:30 (UTC+1)

Short Abstract:

This panel invites anthropological and ethnographic contributions that help to better situate and understand the material politics of “plastic”: iconic substance of the anthropocene and “wonder-material” turned serial polluter. Who is (made) responsible for intractable plastic and how?

Long Abstract

Plastic has steadily, if unevenly, risen up the global political and public agenda, through campaigns and discourses that often rely on specific (often visual) registers of environmental contamination and anthropogenic catastrophe. The days of optimism at plastic’s endless possibilities are seemingly long gone. Yet we are entangled with the heterogeneous materials covered by the catch-all term "plastic" as never before. This has given rise to seemingly utopian desires/interventions to make naturecultures "plastic-free", even as the separation of the human (or the "living") from the synthetic has become ever-more problematic (deWolff 2017), highlighted by controversies over micro-plastics and broader assertions that “we are all contaminated” (Renfrew 2018). Pathak and Nichter (2019: 309) note a “remarkable lack of anthropological research on plastics”. For Dey and Michael (forthcoming), plastics’ heterogeneity, multiplicity, and ubiquity render them hugely problematic – perhaps even intractable – as objects of study. Yet these very aspects also render plastics urgent “matters of concern”. This panel invites critical reflections on both a wider ethico-political economy of responsibility for plastics and a more nuanced idea of response-ability (in the dual sense of taking responsibility and being attuned to/skilled in responding to human/ non-human others). Paper themes may include but are not limited to: everyday engagements, alterations, and interventions with plastics and cognate materials; (citizen)science debates and controversies around efficacy, health and harm; disputes over the temporality, durability, and transience of plastics; anti-plastic campaigns; and the circular/linear imaginaries that link plastic design, marketing, consumption, use, disposal and ongoing agencies.

Accepted papers:

Author:

Daniel Sosna (Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences)

Paper short abstract:

This paper interrogates the concept of responsibility using an example of ravens creating accumulations of plastic waste in wilderness. Their activities and relations to other agents extend the notion of responsibility to account for open-endedness of waste and non-human agency.

Paper long abstract:

Plastic waste raises questions about responsibility for its open-ended engagements and effects across the human and non-human realms. There are two questions that require attention. First, what are the limits for imagining and attributing responsibility for plastic waste beyond the human? Second, what would the concept of responsibility look like if one used plastic waste’s capacity to engage in unexpected relations? Building upon Laidlaw’s view of responsibility, I explore how non-human organisms’ engagement with plastics co-creates responsibility. This paper is based on my ethnographic research of Czech wastescapes where I experienced different conceptualizations and contestations of responsibility for plastic waste being ‘out of place’ because of the activities of cunning nonhuman agents: the ravens. These birds developed skills to find and retrieve food waste from the surface of a landfill. The transport of food waste is facilitated by various plastic containers that the ravens drop to the ground and thus create accumulations of waste in the woods. The ravens appear in the nexus between the waste company, farmers, hunters, foresters, other animals and plants. The company contemplates about its responsibility for animal littering and cleaning the surrounding woods, farmers blame the ravens for hurting the calves on their pastures, hunters feel responsibility for keeping the balance in ‘nature’, and foresters cut down the trees to reduce opportunities for ravens’ littering. Rather than searching for a single source or notion of responsibility, I examine the frictions in multispecies interactions to propose a notion of distributed responsibility growing along the relations.

Authors:

Md Nadiruzzaman (University of Hamburg)
Afsana Afrin Esha

Paper short abstract:

Plastic, an offer of modernity, is posing a huge future risk to our environment and public health by toxic elements released from plastic percolating down the surface and contaminates groundwater, which we often use as ‘safe’ drinking water.

Paper long abstract:

Plastic, an offer of modernity, has become one of the largest and significantly important parts of our everyday life. However, it is posing a huge threat to our environment and public health. Plastic does not only pollute the surface environment and freshwater and marine ecosystems, but toxic elements released from plastic also percolates down the surface and contaminates groundwater, which we often use as ‘safe’ drinking water. This particular issue becomes problematic when we look into the entire governance infrastructure of plastic and groundwater interface and how a state-sponsored ‘safe drinking water’ campaign could contrarily produce a ‘risk society’ in the global South. A recent study finds 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contained plastic pollutants, which means that people may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water per year. This paper sheds light on the complex interface of plastic, water, and public health, on the relevance of Beck’s ‘risk society’ to understand this complexity, and on replicating the idea of ‘risk society’ in the case of Bangladesh. Above all, through understanding the plastic – groundwater – waste management nexus in Bangladesh, this paper highlights on and advocates for a new strategy of plastic governance in modern states.

Author:

Rasmus Rodineliussen (Stockholm University)

Paper short abstract:

Plastic scientists point on rubber tiers as a main sources of micro-plastics. I work with scientists on ways to stopping plastics at the source, and collecting it from water. Moreover, I work and dive with divers that collect tiers from water. This talk will link the work of scientists and divers.

Paper long abstract:

Micro-plastics is on top of the political agenda and ‘we’ regularly hear voices telling us that these tiny pieces of plastics already enters the human body via the food we eat and the water we drink. With this the main question seem to be: How to stop more micro-plastics entering nature and in extension humans (without stop using plastics, of course..)? Plastic scientists have pointed towards rubber tiers as one of the main sources of micro-plastics, and an extra toxic type on that. When tiers break down into micro pieces they spread and leak toxins in the surrounding water – and are small enough to enter the food chain. In my research I have worked with scientists on different ways to address the micro-plastic issue, both looking at stopping plastics at the source and collecting it from water when already ‘micro’. Moreover, I have worked – and dived – together with scuba trash-divers that collect rubber tiers from the water before they break into smaller particles. Both groups work to curb the plastic issue – my examples focus on the Baltic Sea although the work and the issue are global in scope. This talk will address the concern of plastic waters linking the work of plastic scientists and scuba divers. Theoretically I depart from environmental anthropology and political ecology, outlining the political and ‘cultural’ contexts these individuals work within.

Author:

Tridibesh Dey (University of Exeter)

Paper short abstract:

This paper grapples with the variegated evidence of plastics within the multiple urban life-worlds of Ahmedabad. It interrogates the policies and practices of managing plastic ubiquities, their situatedness, and the diverse stakes and consequences.

Paper long abstract:

Staying with the themes of intractability and evidence, this paper seeks to interrogate the so-called “ubiquity” of plastics. It argues to the effect that the commonness (even, everywhere-ness), often associated with these sets of synthetic polymer materials in scientific and non-scientific discourses, may not be so common, after all. That is, ubiquities may be enacted, multiple (Mol, 1999), with specific cultural, spatial, material and political economic underpinnings, associated practices, meanings, policies, livelihood opportunities, violent ends – sometimes, all co-existing in tension. As such, I will investigate specific enactments of ubiquity and the various abilities to respond to these.The discussion is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Ahmedabad, India, practised discontinuously between 2015 and early 2019, and pertain mainly to the multiple practices of managing plastic waste in the public spaces of the city (streets, sidewalks, public parks, gardens…). Methodologically, I follow narratives and practices of self-employed plastic pickers, civic authorities and their private agents in waste collection, and that of members of Ahmedabad civil society. In particular, the complex discourse of sanitized public spaces (Chakrabarty, 1992) and its practical enactments, especially under the “Clean India” campaign, variously intra-act with the caste-based, gendered livelihood practices of “looking out for” (Simone, 2018) plastics. I ask: what do these practitioners make of plastics’ presence in various locations (whether at home or in consumption spaces, or in various disposal/dump sites, including public spaces)? Which ubiquities are desired, which ones aren’t – for whom? How are ubiquities managed, how is situatedness secured, and what are the consequences?

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