Duration 1.5.2018 – 30.9.2021

PLENTY – Plastics in Environment and Society


Team: Ulrike Felt (PI), Laura Bomm

Funding: University of Vienna

Project Description

Over the past decades, we have witnessed growing efforts to analyse the ways in which plastic has become a central part of late modernity. They describe the rise of plastic in many different domains, point to its rapid uptake and ubiquity and have shown how it shaped cultural developments. Plastic is identified as one of the central ingredients allowing the emergence of mass consumption so characteristic for the 20th century. While much of the 20th century was characterized by an euphoric expansion of the use of plastic into all domains of life, more recently, it became evident that plastic was not only a powerful force in organising our lives and building the world we live in, but had also numerous unintended consequences. The broad introduction of plastic into all segments of our life-worlds, has also led to environmental and bodily accumulation effects, has caused ecological contamination, and triggered concerns about health impacts. This material, once unconditionally admired has come to be emblematic of economies of abundance and ecological destruction. It actually is plastic’s remarkable material recalcitrance, which forces us to admit that it will be with us — in all its different forms and scales — way beyond the moment when its use value has stopped to persist. Contemporary societies only gradually start to understand the gravity and the complexities of these facts. Or as Bensaude-Vincent has put it: “While the manufacture of plastics destroys the archives of life on the earth, its waste will constitute the archives of the twentieth century and beyond.”

In order to explore the societal awareness of the environmental problems associated with plastics and, in particular, how consumers relate their understanding of these problems to their own behaviour, we will organise group discussions with citizens. In addition, the perceptions of macro-, micro- and nanoplastic will be investigated and reflected how this matters when it comes to plastic usage in daily life. Drawing on Barthes’ reflections, we will aim to move away from understanding plastic through the objects. Rather, we aim to find a way to trigger the necessary sensitivities in the citizens’ debates for retracing the different ways in which plastic has permeated our societies, for being attentive how different plastic (and non-plastic) entities come together creating new and unexpected effects (e.g. implications for ecosystems, accumulation of plastics within the food chain), for understanding how plastic has shaped our expectations of a convenient life, for observing how it is omnipresent in everyday practices and for becoming attentive to the many paths it takes through our society — from production over consumption to waste. While we can start this reflection from the plastic objects which colonize our lives, we need to go beyond and also focus on less visible plastic presences, both fabricated such as in micro-beads or micro- and nanoplastics emerging from processes of decomposition of macroplastic objects.

Methodological approach:

Media Analysis: We will perform a frame-analysis of Austrian media, investigating how the topic of plastic, health and environment is addressed and what remains unaddressed, mainly focusing on the question of micro-plastic. Media are conceptualised as places were a “first draft of history” gets outlined, i.e. they deliver a sketch of the publicly visible parts of the problem at stake. These accounts are important sources for what citizens perceive as a problem, which actors are identified as central, what actions potentially can and should be taken and how responsibility is distributed. It will also be essential to better understand where plastic is staged as playing an unquestioned key-role, and where it is regarded as “matter out of place” [44]. We will study the more recent period of print-media and magazine reporting (2010-2017). The outcomes from our media analysis will be discussed with the researchers in the PLENTY platform in order to create detailed awareness about the current public discourse on “the plastic problem”.

Civil society and policy makers: In a second step, we will identify civil society organisations or citizen science groups as well as relevant policy makers addressing the issue of plastic. For the civil society actors, we will study the online information presented on websites and make a small number of interviews. For the latter, we will look for regulatory debates and position papers and also make a small number of interviews. Together the number of interviews will be about 10 each lasting roughly 1-1.5 hour. They will be analysed in order to identify the key-issues at stake as well as the tacit and explicit models of how plastic “flows” through society, where it accumulates, where it is in- or out-of-place and thus where major problems arise and potential interventions can be imagined. This will be used both as input for our next step – citizen engagement – as well as to engage with other researchers of the platform concerning societal actors’ visions of the dynamic developments in the plastic-environment interactions.

Discussion groups with members of civil society: Building in research performed in the first two steps and in close collaboration with the other researchers of the platform we will develop the written and visual input to the card-facilitated discussion method IMAGINE to engage citizens with the issue of micro-plastics. This method was specifically developed to open up a space of engagement for citizens who are unfamiliar with a socio-technical issues. This approach allows us to understand how citizens make sense of plasticenvironment issues, which values matter in their assessments, how they perceive the distribution of responsibilities and which actions to be taken they identify (for an example of such an analysis in the field of nanotechnology see Felt et al., 2015). We further aim at understanding how citizens differentiate between different kinds of plastics (e.g. focus on microbeads in cosmetics while other aspects are widely ignored), how they reflect on the
use of plastic in the social world they are part of, and where they perceive key actors in the field and their own role as consumers. The method stimulates and supports the process of gradually developing positions in exchange with others. It helps participants to connect different ways of seeing the problem and to understand plastic as a mixture creating possibilities and potentially causing problems. The aim is to capture in a qualitative manner the diversity and breadth of the argumentative repertoires and to understand in detail citizens’ argumentative strategies and the values which matter within them.
All interviews and discussion groups will be transcribed and analysed.