By Debra J. Davidson and Magnus Boström, editors of Environment and Society
Plastic waste is among the more serious and complicated environmental issues we face today: plastics do not degrade so they accumulate in the waste stream virtually indefinitely. In one recent study, researchers found that a total of 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced to date, and 6.3 billion of that still exists, on land, in our waterways, and in our oceans. This global flow of waste poses direct hazards to wildlife, and their eventual degradation into smaller components, so-called ‘micro-beads,’ is beginning to raise scientific alarm as a source of human health threat as well.
Plastic waste is an environmental and technical problem, requiring consideration of its environmental impacts, and alternative materials, including biodegradable plastics, that could replace plastic materials. It can be on the agenda as a policy problem, requiring support of research, hard regulation and behaviour ‘nudging’ strategies to encourage more sustainable options.
But even more so, plastic waste is a social problem. Developing effective strategies to end plastic waste requires that we consider why plastic waste is generated in the first place. Plastics did not appear in our consumption chains of their own accord; there was a clear shift toward the use of plastics in many production streams, but particularly packaging, that was facilitated by the manufacturers of those products. Such shifts carve development pathways that are then difficult to unseat, particularly when supported by those manufacturers, who have every reason to promote their continued use. Producers of textiles and outdoor equipment convince consumers that plastics are necessary to make their products more durable, flame retardant, and water repellant. The cosmetics industry add plastics for our skin to appear ‘naturally’ younger and prettier. The packaging and retailer industry maintain that plastics are necessary for keeping produce fresh for a longer time and even for separating organic from conventional food.
The volume of plastics in our waste stream is also a reflection of mass consumerism. The quintessential symbol of this consumerism is the use of plastic bottles for drinks; an item in use for possibly 20 minute which then requires 450 years to biodegrade. Plastic bottles are the largest source of plastic waste, but others include commonly used items like disposable diapers, cutlery, and food packaging. In other words, one would have a difficult time in the west going a single day without producing some form of plastic waste. The ubiquity of plastics in our lives and social practices does not lend itself to critical reflection of our contributions for plastic waste, or consideration for changing practices to reduce the prevalence of plastic.
Environmental awareness has indeed grown in western countries, yet our consumer practices are resistant to change. Multiple social and psychological factors drive routinized consumption. Plastic toys made plastics appear natural to us. The benefit of consumption is immediate, whereas the problems emerge later, often in distant places like the oceans, and back into our bodies, unseen, through food consumption. The problems with plastics cannot hence be directly sensed. Further, because of the complexity and ubiquity of the problem, everyone can point at someone else to blame. Consumers may argue that solving the issue is not their responsibility but instead point at those with more economic and decision making power . Given these circumstances, ‘more information’ and appeals to our environmental conscience are simply not enough. Even conscious consumers are appeased by those purported solutions that pose a minimum of disruption in their routines. Green consumerism is one example. Recycling is another. Yet the relief offered to conscious consumers every time they throw their waste into a recycling bin is countered by the fact that only a small proportion of plastic produced is ever reused or recycled.
‘Solving’ the plastic waste problem will thus require a truly concerted effort of great scale. This effort requires facilitating new socio-material structures and new cultural norms; combating all sorts of drivers behind the maintenance of mass production and consumption of problematic plastics. This effort requires, in turn, combatting reductionist ways of thinking, such as the tendency to delegate responsibility to individual green consumers. In contrast, societies must foster a conceptual reflexivity that enriches our understanding about the interconnectedness of societies and ecosystems. This includes imagining how things could be different. Campaigns such as ‘beat plastic pollution’ offer important examples of such warranted reflexivity and imagination.
About the authors
Magnus Boström is Professor of Sociology at Örebro University, Sweden, with a theoretical interest and research profile in environmental sociology. His research interest generally concerns politics, representation, consumption and action in relation to a broad variety of transnational environmental and sustainability issues.
Debra J. Davidson is Professor of Environmental Sociology in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta, USA. Her key areas of teaching and research include social responses to climate change, and crises and transitions in food and energy systems.