Plastic Pollution Goes Far Beyond Litter

Plastic litter at the outskirts of a village.

Plastics in the oceans. Beaches littered with plastics. Images of whales and cows with plastics in their bellies. Calls for citizens not to litter, to throw away trash responsibly, to join clean up drives, to recycle. In the public imagination, the problem of plastics has largely become one of litter.

Plastic litter is indeed exacting a heavy toll on ecosystems. To suggest however that plastic pollution is an issue of litter alone—and that the public is largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs—is wrong at best, downright pernicious at worst. As medical anthropologists studying human–plastic interactions, we have noticed a disturbing conflation between plastic pollution and plastic litter. Such confusion not only pervades public discourses about plastics, but it also finds its way into policy initiatives, environmental interventions, and consumer action. But the two are not the same.

Plastic pollution is defined as “the introduction of plastics (regardless of sizes, shapes, or types) into the environment, resulting in potential threats to the environment, organisms, or even human health” (Li et al. 2020). Plastic pollution references harm, of plastics affecting animals, the food chain, soil, or water. Plastic litter, on the other hand, is an issue of spatially displaced waste plastics. As Max Liboiron (2019) has pointed out, when Mary Douglas wrote about pollution as “matter out of place” (1966: 35), she was not referring to matter that is merely spatially displaced but referencing the power that being out of place carried. “Social ordering,” Liboiron explains, “means ordering the world, and dangers to that order—threats to power—are to be eradicated, not merely sorted.” Dirt and pollution threaten or disrupt existing power structures. Notions of litter, by implying that the displacement can be corrected through new spatial arrangements, can in fact serve to keep power (such as the existing industrial order or sociocultural hierarchies regarding who throws away trash and who cleans it up) in place. Plastic packaging on a product sitting on a store shelf is not litter, post-use plastic packaging in a trashcan is not litter, plastics lying in a waterway, alongside a highway, in the forest or in a rice field are litter. We tend to think that these plastics are in rivers, forests, or fields because someone threw them there instead of throwing them in a trashcan. Irresponsible consumers or citizens become the problem. However, plastic pollution is far less the result of consumers’ irresponsible disposal than we are led to believe.

For one, let’s think about waste management systems; to do so, we use the example of India, where both of us have conducted several years of fieldwork. Like much of the Global South, India’s formal waste management systems are inadequate. The informal recycling economy[1]— reliant on waste pickers, itinerant buyers, scrap dealers, and so on—plugs gaps in municipal waste services and recovers value from large quantities of material that would otherwise be disposed (e.g., Doron and Jeffrey 2018; Gidwani 2015; Gill 2009). Although this sector is extremely efficient, it is not supported by the state, and workers within the industry are stigmatized, marginalized, and poorly paid. This recycling economy is also highly reliant on fluctuating scrap prices—when the price of oil is low, it is cheaper to produce new plastics than to use recycled ones—and on the vagaries of access—it does not make financial sense for waste pickers to go to poorly accessible places to pick a few pieces of not-very valuable or even unrecyclable plastics. Meanwhile, India’s dumping grounds are overflowing, and certain areas—rural regions or urban slum settlements, for example—are not served by waste collection facilities. Overflowing dumping grounds and infrequently emptied, overflowing waste bins in heavily populated areas are common. The trash in these overflows or is carried away by winds, rains, or scavenging animals to be deposited elsewhere. In such underserved places, it is also common for plastic waste to be burned in the open, in a process that releases toxic gases and ash, just to get rid of it. How else does a community that is ill-served by waste collection and management services deal with its mountains of trash?

This is not to say that more formal waste management economies are a solution. Even with the best waste management infrastructures, leaks are inevitable. We are based in Denmark and the US, both of which have formal waste collection services. Plastics can be found on the beaches, waterways, and roads there too. In fact, so widespread was concern in the 1960s in the US over the perils of disposable packaging that corporations banded together to form the Keep America Beautiful campaign; the campaign tried to—and largely succeeded at—deflecting attention away from industries using such packaging and onto consumers instead (Rogers 2007). Singapore, which incinerates its trash, is running out of space to deposit the resulting toxic ash. Incineration also produces polluting and toxic gases that have to be treated. In addition, evidence from Sweden, which also incinerates its waste (often wrongly advertised as recycling), suggests that incineration infrastructures “lock in” a dependence on high-calorie plastic waste, discouraging policies aimed at waste reduction or recycling (Corvellac, Campos, and Zapata 2013). Plastic waste is thus an issue for all countries, no matter how developed their waste management systems or seemingly enlightened their citizenry.

Waste overflowing from a public trash can.

In India, notoriously unclean public spaces have been a source of national embarrassment. As part of a bid to be taken seriously as an emerging global player, India has tried to clean up its image by cleaning up its public spaces; in national campaigns and interventions, littering has come to be associated with other actions denoting a lack of civic consciousness, such as spitting or public urination and defecation (Pathak and Nichter 2021). The Indian government has also focused its efforts on plastics that cause visible litter—such as plastic bags—and touted biodegradable materials as being more environmentally-friendly alternatives. However, paper and cotton can be more energy or water intensive to produce than plastics, so if they are thrown away after only one use or only a handful of uses, that is not ecologically friendly either. Biodegradable does not necessarily mean non-polluting or lower in terms of carbon footprint. Unfortunately, here even government policy and initiatives conflate plastic pollution with plastic litter (Pathak 2020). Such a preoccupation with the aesthetic aspect of plastic pollution—rather than its ecological harms—when it comes to government policies such as single-use bans also results in regulatory confusion, for example about plastics labelled as degradable or single-use plastic carrier bags that look like cloth.

Recycling is an imperfect and overhyped solution to this problem. The overwhelming majority of plastics will never be recycled, a fact cogently highlighted by the recent Frontline PBS documentary, Plastic Wars. Not all plastics are recyclable. Not all recyclable plastics are economically viable candidates for recycling. Even among recyclable plastics that are commercially attractive candidates for recycling, factors (such as unclean waste or improper segregation) can prevent recycling. Most plastic recycling is at best downcycling—that is, it creates items of lesser value than the item being recycled, and it only prolongs, rather than eliminates, disposal. Even viable plastics cannot be endlessly recycled—they cannot be subjected to remolding more than around three times. When producing goods from recycled plastic, the use of virgin plastic is inescapable. Furthermore, unregulated or poorly regulated recycling also results in polluting effluent or gases, which are then often let out into the environment. Whereas feel-good stories advertise the building of roads with plastic waste, there are only so many roads that need building; they cannot absorb all the plastic waste that keeps being generated. Furthermore, those roads will also eventually disintegrate, resulting in plastic waste and microplastics. Meanwhile, most plastics touted as degradable just disintegrate into microplastics; they are not truly biodegradable and do not decompose.

Plastic waste burned by a roadside.

There are other dimensions of harm. Plastic production is a significant source of greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. Plastics that are made from renewable biomass sources, such as corn starch or vegetable fats, require the diversion of land away from food production. Certain plastics, such as polycarbonate, contain additives such as bisphenol-A (BPA) that are known to disrupt the endocrine system. We are only now beginning to realize the full extent of the presence of micro- and nanoplastics, which are tiny particles of plastics that result from their wear and tear (including from the washing of polyester fabric), in our environment, food chain, and bodies. Micro and nanoplastics have been found in tap water, rain, vegetables, soil, salt, human bodies, and even the placenta of unborn babies; there are no environments uncontaminated by microplastics (e.g., Chae and An 2018; Conti et al. 2020; North and Halden 2013; Pivokonsky 2018; Prata 2018; Ragusa et al. 2021). The harms of microplastics for human bodies and ecosystems have not yet been clearly elucidated—the WHO judged that based on current evidence, microplastics in water could not be deemed a human health risk (World Health Organization 2019)—but the absence of evidence need not mean the absence of harm. It is prudent to adopt a precautionary position. We know, for example, that polystyrene nanoplastics can cross the blood–brain barrier (Kashiwada 2006). Then there are the ecologies below the surface—ecologies involving microorganisms, such as on coral reefs or in the soil. Research shows that microplastics affect these microbes and in turn result in necrotic reefs and deteriorating soil fertility (Machado et al. 2018; Reichert et al. 2018). And what about the effects of microplastics on the human microbiome, the microbes within human bodies that can help or harm optimal human functioning? Studies on microplastics and nanoplastics are still in a nascent stage, and until a substantial body of research has investigated potential harms, it would be unwise to exonerate them entirely.

What, then, is the solution? There isn’t an easy one. It requires plastic custodianship, with far more limited plastic production and change on the part of all stakeholders. Given plastics’ broad utility, it is unrealistic to think we can live without them. However, we need to scale back on plastic use and address the haphazard way we dispose of plastic waste. Out of sight cannot be out of mind. Several strategies come to mind. Where possible, we need to opt for reusable rather than disposable options and then ensure reuse (reliance on single-use items is an environmental problem regardless of their material, whether paper, cellulose, or plastic). Littering should, of course, be discouraged. But for real change, we have to stop obsessing about how best to use one less plastic straw or bag and channel that energy into demanding regulatory change (plastic bags, bottles, and straws are only a small percentage of total plastics produced). We must look beyond consumer behavior and pass regulation that mandates reductions in unnecessary packaging, the phasing out of unrecyclable plastics (e.g., styrofoam) or packaging (e.g., sachets, tetrapacks, multilayer packaging), and new forms of retail that reduce waste (e.g., refill stores). We should also push for effective extended producer responsibility policies that make brands take ownership of the packaging waste of their products. (If corporations can get their products to remote locations, they should be able to set up the infrastructure to collect the resulting waste.) We cannot continue to place the lion’s share of responsibility for post-consumer waste onto citizens. Regulation should require use of a certain percentage of recycled materials in production of new goods or packaging. We have to ensure efficient waste collection by working with local communities and the informal waste sector where possible. Overall, however, we must work toward waste reduction, more environmentally friendly and less fossil fuel-dependent materials (such as hemp or bamboo), and a maintenance- rather than disposal-oriented economy.

Where do anthropologists fit into this agenda for change? An anthropology of plastic custodianship will entail elucidating the myriad human–environmental complexities associated with plastic use and disposal and designing and implementing interventions aimed at mitigating risks. Anthropological analyses of plastics, nested within engaged research on toxicity, can help prioritize aspects of harm to be addressed and illuminate alternatives that are suited to local contexts and concerns. Finally, as anthropologists, we can also help in the crucial work of consensus building and policy planning by acting as mediators between diverse stakeholders and by documenting successful and unsuccessful collaboration (Pathak and Nichter 2019).

Gauri Pathak is an Associate Professor at the Department of Global Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark, and Mark Nichter is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Public Health, and Family Medicine at the School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, USA.

Image credits: Mark Nichter

Works Cited

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[1] There is much debate surrounding the term “informal economy.” It is difficult to draw boundaries between the formal and informal sectors, especially in the Indian—and indeed, Global South—labor context where the two frequently interact and overlap (e.g., Gill 2009). Nevertheless, it is a term widely used to reference the waste and recycling activities in India that are not part of municipal waste management services.