Til bevillingsoversigt

Plastics and the Anthropocene: The Bads Associated with the Goods We Consume

Semper Ardens: Accelerate


Plastic pollution is a pressing global concern, and there is an urgent need for research into the sociocultural dimensions of plastic use and disposal. Examining how risks related to plastics are experienced, thought about, and responded to in different contexts is crucial to our theoretical and practical understanding of the interactions between bodies, environments, and toxicity in the Anthropocene. This research project aims to address that need by exploring what people in urban and rural India, Indonesia, and the Philippines find to be the benefits and risks of using plastic food containers and bottles and what they find to be the advantages, risks, and constraints of different methods of disposing of the resulting plastic wastes, with particular focus on the open burning of wastes.


This project is located at the cutting-edge of anthropological research on the far-ranging impact of plastics on health-environment systems. It will bring science and technology studies (STS) on plastics in dialogue with an emerging body of medical anthropological work on how toxic chemicals make complicated demands on human bodies. Most studies of toxicity and human-environmental health have been situated in the Global North, and the study of plastics as a material related to yet distinct from these chemicals is largely missing. This project will augment that literature with a focus on people's concerns about the toxicity of plastics in the Global South, and it will promote an anthropology of plastics that lies at the intersection of environmental and medical anthropology and STS.


The project will involve partnering with universities in the Netherlands, the USA, Indonesia, and the Philippines to build Global North-South bridges and to launch the first global research network on an anthropology of plastics. Ethnographic fieldwork consisting of participant-observation, observation, and interviews will be conducted in Indonesia and the Philippines (which feature high on the list of countries contributing to marine plastics) and in India (which has committed to becoming single-use plastic free by 2022). The project will build on my earlier work, which has made the case for an anthropology of plastics as having urgent ecological and health relevance, and will also engage junior researchers to further develop this research field.


The environmental and health costs of plastic pollution are an acute global concern, and research that examines how individuals, stakeholders, and communities engage with and understand plastics can inform interventions to tackle the harms of plastics and plastic pollution. The open burning of plastic wastes in the Global South is a widespread but ignored method of disposal that releases toxic persistent organic pollutants (such as dioxins and furans), contributes to air pollution, and has long-term health risks. The results of this project will help us better understand why these risks are invisible or tolerated, and they will assist in developing safer, more locally appropriate methods of disposal. On a broader level, the project's results will aid policymakers, health and development programs, industry associations, and community-based groups in developing context-sensitive interventions to mitigate the harms of plastic pollution and in re-designing consumer plastics to be more sustainable, not just in South and Southeast Asia but also globally. They will also help inform action aimed at the UN Sustainable Development Goals related to conserving marine and land-based ecosystems and minimizing the health and environmental harms of post-consumer wastes. Overall, as the world increasingly reckons with the biosocial disruptions of anthropogenic ecological degradation, this project aims to contribute to global efforts to protect vulnerable populations and achieve healthier, more sustainable engagements with the environment.