Delimiting catastrophe and its objects: the contest over the materiality of plastic pollution

Max Liboiron, Doctoral Candidate, MCC, NYU


We are living in a different world than we were fifty years ago. In the Pacific Ocean, plastic outweighs plankton six to one. Some Greenland Natives have so many industrial chemicals in their bodies, many from plastics, they can be classified as toxic waste when they die. In one form or another, and in startlingly high quantities, plastics are in every body of water and in every human body, with uncharted and largely unpredictable effects. Plastics and their chemicals exist in geological time, not generational time, and so will outlast our species.

Yet there is a contest over exactly what the materialities of plastics and plastic pollution are within the United States. This paper argues that this opposition, whose contenders are loosely arranged along lines of scientists and activists on one hand, and policy-makers and corporate lobbyists on the other, not only affects how the materiality of plastic is understood, but also the temporal status, conditions, and reality of a plastic pollution catastrophe and possibilities for mitigation. In this scenario, materials are not inert substances subject to predictable causal forces, but a set of relations and a source of excess that materialize through opposing forces. This is not an argument about “merchants of doubt” and “junk science,” but about how the ontology of a pollutant and the shape of a crisis are the results of negotiation, or what Andrew Pickering calls “the mangle:” the back and forth of political, economic, scientific and environmental discourses and processes and an emerging materiality.

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