Ocean plastic pollution presents a common environmental paradox: despite an exponential increase in awareness, flows of plastic into global oceans are only expected to increase. What might it be about the kinds of knowledges circulated, and about the kinds of solutions that follow, that are preventing more systemic change? What if the problem isn’t individual choices, or even the plastic industry’s monumental efforts to continue to produce waste alone, but an even more entrenched constellation of capitalism, colonialism and cultural assumptions about plastic itself?
Take for example, Lenka Petrákova’s “The 8th Continent,” awarded the 2020 Grand Prix award for Architecture and Innovation of the Sea. As envisioned by the designer, the 8th Continent is a plastic pollution clean-up and research station intended for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the infamous accumulation of plastic waste in the North Pacific Ocean. Petrákova sought design inspiration in the interactions between living organisms and their environments. She envisions the station as “dynamic architecture…influenced, transformed and organized by ecology systems.” The results are visually striking, like a cross between the Sydney Opera House and a hummingbird.
There is much to admire about Petrákova’s vision: the fluid aesthetics of the design itself, the goal of changing relationships with the ocean, and the inclusion of an education center instead of limiting the focus to science and technology alone. However, from my environmental humanities perspective, I find two components of this project both very familiar and rather concerning: First, an unquestioned focus on ocean cleanup as THE solution for plastic pollution; and second, that it is so literally a platform that it takes continental land-form. The 8th Continent exemplifies dominant approaches to plastic pollution that depend on material separation, on more control, and on more extraction. How has it come to seem more reasonable to design floating continents dedicated to cleaning plastic from the entirety of the ocean’s surface, rather than to limit plastic production on land?
Entanglements at Sea
While imagery of the garbage patch as floating trash island (or even a continent) have circulated widely, the forms plastic pollution take at sea are more elusive. In June 2011, I was a participant on a research expedition sailing through the garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Most of what we found, even in the very heart of the garbage patch, consisted of lost fishing gear, unrecognizable scattered plastic fragments and even smaller microplastics, all dispersed across what looked from the surface to be clear blue ocean. This is not to say plastic wasn’t there – it most certainly was and is. But that the form it took was overwhelmingly different from the vision of plastic waste we usually conjure. Not bottles, or bags, not a floating landfill or an island, but a constant presence of plastic fragments, most invisible from the deck of the boat.
What was even more surprising, were the myriad ways marine life appeared to be living and even flourishing with plastic: coral reef fish that could not otherwise survive so far from land travelling in the shelter of a plastic beverage crate; barnacles burrowing into blocks of foam; halobates, the only open ocean insect, may even be experiencing a population boom thanks to floating synthetic materials. Plastics and life are what feminist science and technology scholars call “entangled,” meaning that the relationships cannot be ‘undone’ into separate component parts. Even more critically, thinking about entanglements requires considering how knowledge and ethics are all caught up in relationships too. Knowledge in Western science traditions depends on categorical divisions between culture (plastic) and nature (the ocean/marine life), an understanding that readily leads to conclusions that these substances should not mix: that plastic must be cleaned up from the sea. Yet in the marine life examples above, to take away the plastic would be to alter or even kill marine life.
Plastic Purity Politics
Ocean cleanup is only one site of a much broader set of approaches to plastic pollution grounded on these kinds of separations. The drive to clean up, cut out and separate appears across scales form from global oceans to the minutiae of individual daily routines. There are calls for ‘plastic-free living’ which have become near synonymous with ‘zero waste’ lifestyles. I see both the drive toward plastic free living and ocean cleanup projects as enactments of what social and political theorist Alexis Shotwell calls “Purity Politics.” Purism, in Shotwell’s articulation, is at its root about continuing to impose order on conditions that are fundamentally compromised and complex: in the case of plastic, this looks like attempts to take plastic back from the sea after the fact; or to banish plastic objects from our daily routines as if using a bamboo toothbrush absolves us of individual responsibility for environmental crises.
In arguing against purity, Shotwell makes a case for the impossibility of avoiding entanglements, while attending to the not-so-innocent politics of purity itself as a goal. She ties contemporary practices of cleaning, delineating and forgetting, not only to modernity, but also to colonialism across science, culture and philosophy. What dangers, then, do I see lurking in specifically plastic purity politics: what forms of power are perpetuated by cleanup and other forms of separation?
The 8th Continent, is just one example in a much longer line of ‘solutions’ for ocean pollution that embody a very specific terrocentric or land-based form of Western domination and control. Here the ‘solution’ involves making the ocean more land-like (building a floating continent), and extracting plastic (for recycling) in order to bring it back into realms of economic value. Years previously, Recycled Island proposed building a giant inhabited floating landmass from ocean pollution, and even the well-known Ocean Cleanup project even promised its technology would “build a coastline where there are none.” This constellation of colonial capitalist expansion is immortalized in especially visible form in the graphic novel series Great Pacific, where a white male hero builds a frontier town on a garbage patch island, that, yes, was already inhabited by Pacific Islanders. Without attending to these power relations, even well-meaning environmental actions can perpetuate troubling inequalities, as Max Liboiron argues in Pollution is Colonialism. We keep promoting “solutions” that are part of the problem – extraction, growth and yet more attempts to dominate – where even pollution itself is just yet another potential resource.
Living Responsibly With Plastic
What might a platform for fighting plastic pollution look like that does not take landform? Is it possible to hold on to the fluid relationality of Petrakova’s oceanic vision without repeating tropes of Western domination? How do we give up the fantasy of purity and control without supporting ocean plastic pollution? What might those ‘better practices of responsibility’ look like with plastic? I suggest beginning with entanglements, with the impossibility of ‘undoing’ or being outside relationships. We are implicated in systems of harm even when we do not want to be part of them. From there, we need to:
- Recognize the limitations of separation and associated purity politics: when and how do clean-up projects and technologies impede conversations about different strategies and different futures? Who benefits? And who is harmed?
- Take the lead from plastic’s own fluid material properties – its power to travel and transform worlds without humans and beyond human intentions. If we listen, plastic is showing us that it cannot be fully controlled. Human products will end up at sea, not matter our attempts to keep them separate.
- Fight to stop making things we do not want in the ‘environment’ or in our own bodies. This requires changing the main sites of intervention from material ‘afterlives’ (cleanup/recycling post use and disposal) or even consumption (as the choice of what we buy and how we use it) – to production and prevention. Clean up and recycling efforts should be last resorts.
- Have conversations. From how to separate and contain plastic to what kinds of relationships we do want to have with plastic and with the ocean.
Let’s approach plastic on its own terms and ask: what kinds of relationships are we willing to have with plastic? How do we want to live with the ocean and all its inhabitants however close or far away they may seem? And what kinds of relationships do we want to have with each other?