How plastic taught us to be wasteful
“Probably the biggest influence plastic has had on consumers is teaching them how to waste. It is wrong to blame consumers for being wasteful, this practice has been foisted on them.” So says Gay Hawkins, Professor of Cultural Studies and Social Theory at Western Sydney University. She studies the role of plastics in consumer society and visits Centre for Consumer Science on the 13-18th of June. We invite you to participate in an open seminar.
Read more about her research and the seminar.
What can you tell us about the results of your current project – The Skin of Commerce?
It is a large research project investigating the role of plastic in reconfiguring food production, consumption and everyday disposal practices. The project is still underway so results are not finalized. However, what can be said is that the development of the post-World War II plastics industry was very much connected to changes in the food industry. In order for the plastics industry to grow in the 1950s and 1960s it needed to be applied to more and more situations. Initially plastic was seen as a very hardwearing and durable material - which it is - but in order to increase sales it had to be reconfigured as a material that could be used once and thrown away. Packaging provided the perfect opportunity for this new approach to the material. When it was used in packaging it was seen as a transient material, as something that had a very short working life and was then discarded. Packaging applications helped redefine plastic as ”disposable”.
The rise of the fast food industry depended on lightweight plastic packaging and cutlery etc. Without this material this massive sector of the food industry could not have grown in the way that it has.
Why did plastic become the dominant material in packaging?
The reasons for this are complex and it is hard to generalize, however some key factors are:
- the cost of production: plastic is part of carbon or oil based economies and as these economies grew the costs of plastic production were reduced and production was scaled up.
- the material qualities of plastic often make it superior to other packaging eg. its lightweight which makes it cheap to move around, its durability (unlike glass it is unbreakable); its plasticity i.e. ability to be moulded into multiple shapes; its transparency which generates a sense of being barely there, of being an invisible surface that both protects and also gives direct visible access to contents.
- the rise of the fast food industry depended on lightweight plastic packaging and cutlery etc. Without this material this massive sector of the food industry could not have grown in the way that it has.
Probably the biggest influence plastic has had on consumers is teaching them how to waste, how to feel comfortable with using things once and then discarding them. Plastic is the material that both underpins and defines disposable cultures.
How has this material influenced consumer practices?
Initially plastic produced concerns in some consumers about the material being “unnatural” but these fears were gradually reduced as plastic was promoted as pure, clean, convenient, and most of all modern. These new meanings led to consumers feeling uncomfortable with food that wasn't wrapped in plastic! Plastic seemed to make food cleaner and purer by providing a synthetic barrier to the world. Using it was also an indicator of being up to date and sophisticated.
Probably the biggest influence plastic has had on consumers is teaching them how to waste, how to feel comfortable with using things once and then discarding them. Plastic is the material that both underpins and defines disposable cultures. It is wrong to blame consumers for disposability and being wasteful, this practice has been foisted on them by plastic and its omnipresence.
Can you say something about the efforts from the industry to reduce plastic?
We have yet to start this section of the research. However, we have looked at alternative food markets where there are attempts to reduce plastic use or go 'plastic free'. These efforts are great to see but also somewhat depressing. Plastic is very hard to avoid in many elements of food production, distribution and consumption. It is structurally embedded in these systems from plastic food crates that are used in food transport to vacuum sealed packs. What can be avoided is single use plastics and this is where committed consumers and organizations can make a difference.
Many industries such as the beverages industry justify their use of plastic by saying “it is recyclable”. The evidence shows that plastic is difficult and expensive to recycle and needs significant infrastructure to do it effectively i.e. in ways that are not polluting or toxic to workers. Much packaging also involves several different types of plastic which cannot be easily recycled together. The PET bottle, for example, requires the lid and lip to be cut off as these are a different plastic from the PET. In Australia only about 40 percent of plastic is recycled.
Which aspects of consumer activism about plastic waste have you studied?
Say No to plastic bags campaigns, global activism against bottled water, blogs about people trying to live ”plastic free” and alternative food networks that have reducing plastic packaging as one of their many objectives.
I remain continually surprised and disappointed that there is so little social and cultural research being done on it.
What have you found in regards to consumer activism and plastic waste?
Many consumers are deeply concerned about plastic pollution - particularly in oceans which have symbolized for so long archaic notions of purity and natural abundance. Others worry about synthetic toxins entering their food, or the wastefulness of using such a tough and resource intensive material only once. Thanks to diverse forms of consumer activism plastic is now a very political material. It has a troubling reputation and is fueling global concerns about the age to the anthropocene. Plastic is now seen as a material with a very long life and the sense of it persisting into indefinite time challenges its identity as a fleeting material barely used before it is gone. Activism has shown consumers that it has not actually gone and this new temporality is reshaping how they approach or refuse the material.
Why did you become interested in these issues? Why do you think they are important to study?
Plastic is the definitive material of the 20th and 21st centuries. It has redefined everyday and economic life in very profound ways. I remain continually surprised and disappointed that there is so little social and cultural research being done on it.
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