With the challenges, traumas and tensions that have been posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one might be forgiven for thinking that other, once pressing issues, have been set aside. However, some scientists have argued that threats such as climate change may pose a bigger threat to human health than Coronavirus. Issues such as climate change, air pollution and plastic pollution have not disappeared. Nonetheless, the relative and shifting prominence of these different debates indicates how they can be felt as moments in human history.
Plastics represent a case in point. Following the broadcast of the final episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II in December 2017, we – in the UK at least – ‘had a moment’. Despite years of patient scientific work and environmental advocacy, it suddenly dawned upon us that the ‘plastic problem’ was far larger and more pervasive than we had realised. We all knew that plastics littering our streets and countryside looked ugly; and many of us knew that they could be harmful to wildlife. But who knew that there were microplastics in bottled water (often more than in most tapwaters)i? Or that plastics were congealing in (largely invisible) oceanic vorticesii? Or that once-molten plastics have combined with rock, sand and organic matter to create new materials, known as ‘plastiglomerates’?
However, thinking back to the couple of years before COVID-19, it was apparent that our ‘plastic moment’ was about more than the widespread acquisition of knowledge about plastics. For, this moment was one that we felt. The media fall-out from Blue Planet II indicated how viewers responded emotively to the programme, apparently ‘heartbroken’ at plastics’ effects on marine environments. Soon afterwards, we were being asked to make all kinds of changes to our lifestyles – from our (re)use of plastic bags, to our consideration of plastic alternatives for all manner of everyday objects. This was not only a moment in which our relationships with plastics were being recalibrated, but in which our own feelings, actions and daily habits were changing – being rendered plastic.
However, it is useful to zoom out to consider plastics in their wider historical, social and geographical contexts.
Firstly, there is ongoing debate about whether plastics form part of human impacts on the earth that are so great that they constitute a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Within this story, plastics are but a blip (and an even smaller one when seen in the context of deep geological time). They are but a moment.
Secondly, however, plastics will stick around: whilst we humans have only been so tangled-up with (synthetic) plastics for about a century, some plastics will potentially remain in the earth’s hydrological, geological and ecological systems for millennia.
Thirdly, and turning the attention back to a more human timescale, the effects of plastics vary dramatically depending on who you are and where you live. ‘Our’ plastic moment divides as much as it unifies humans. For many of us, the health impacts of ingesting plastics, at least through drinking water, appear – on the latest medical evidence – to be negligible compared with other risks. Yet for those handling plastics – in recycling plants in countries like China, for instance – the long-term effects of exposure to plasticisers could be detrimental (ranging from mental ill-health to male infertilityiii). Sticking with China, some critical race scholars have also argued that the intensification of attention to plastics in our plastic moment has in some cases been a conduit for racism – with ‘blame’ for the production of mass-produced, plastic items such as toys sometimes being levelled at Chinaiv. In other contexts again, though – not least in the disposable equipment used in the fight against COVID-19 – plastics might be viewed less critically.
Even if COVID-19 has exposed our obsession with plastics as in many ways momentary, this moment will have long-lasting effects that are patterned in different ways, for different people, in different places. Plastics will continue to stick around (although probably not forever): the plastic ‘problem’ has not gone away. Yet the effects of our recent ‘plastic moment’ on our attempts to resolve how exactly we should relate to plastics in the future require further consideration if we are to truly learn how to live (better) with plastics.
iNovotna K, Cermakova L, Pivokonska L, Cajthaml T and Pivokonsky M (2019) Microplastics in drinking water treatment–Current knowledge and research needs. Science of the Total Environment, 667: 730-740.
iiLiboiron M (2016) Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics. Journal of Material Culture 21: 87-110.
iiiDavis H (2015) Life & death in the Anthropocene: A short history of plastic. Art in the anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies, pp.347-358.
ivHuang M (2017) Ecologies of entanglement in the great pacific garbage patch. Journal of Asian American Studies 20: 95-117.
vFor more details, see Kraftl, P. (2020) After Childhood: re-thinking environment, materiality and media in children's lives. London: Routledge.