Duration 5.2018 – 6.2025

Plastics in Environment and Society


Team: Ulrike Felt, Artemis Papdaki Anastasopoulou

This project is part of the Research Platform PLENTY - Plastics in Environment and Society.

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 plastic, we have followed plastics through two approaches.

Citizens' understanding of lives with plastics

(Laura Bomm is currently writing her PhD on citizen debates)

How do 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 – 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.

(Re)assembling single-use plastics on different scales: In the EU, Greece and the Municipality of Sikinos

(financed by a uni:doc fellowship and a Marietta Blau Fellowship for Artemis Papdaki Anastasopoulou)

Plastics were manufactured at the rise of the 20th century and were a catalyst for industrial innovation. They can be moulded into any shape, and they are very durable; they were ‘wonder stuff’. Their production grew rapidly. Together with the large production of plastics, environmental concerns about the impact of plastic waste in the environment were voiced. Plastic waste were accumulating where they did not belong. They are now found in oceans, lakes, rivers and soil. Because of the multiple concerns that plastic waste brings, in the last years there is the growing need to tame plastics, to regulate them.

This project is looking at the regulation of plastics in the European Union (EU) through the recent Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive. It also looks at the implementation of this directive in the Member State of Greece and an insular municipality. Regulating plastics might seem easy, however plastics open up many different issues through their challenging materiality. They complicate easy solutions. They are an environmental concern, but also an industrial material playing a key role in the EU economy. In this project I am interested in understanding how plastics get assembled as policy objects in EU regulation. How they are problematised through their materiality and what that means when a directive is implemented in different scales and contexts.

Preprint: Papadaki-Anastasopoulou, Artemis and Felt, Ulrike (2021). Assembling plastic policy objects in the making of the EU single-use plastics directive, preprint, under review.