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Plastic and the work of the biodegradable

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  • Plastics
  • Environmentalism
  • Sociology Of Science And Technology
  • Human And Social Geography
  • Creative Arts And Design Not Elsewhere Classified
  • Chemistry
  • Political Science


This chapter was originally presented at the seminar, 'Accumulation: The Material Ecologies and Economies of Plastic, co-organised with Gay Hawkins at the University of Queensland and Mike Michael through the Centre for Invention and Social Practice at Goldsmiths, University of London (21 June 2011). Plastics are material substances often condemned for their inability to biodegrade in the environment. New forms of plastics have been developed with capacities for biodegradability, a material strategy that is meant to remedy the (visible) problem of plastics accumulation. This paper discusses the distinct types of work undertaken by humans and more-than-humans in the material processes of bio-degrading plastics. The paper focuses on three distinct examples of biodegradable practices and processes, including EU fisherman paid to fish plastic from European seas, the accumulation of plastics and plasticizers in marine organisms’ bodies, and the discovery of ‘plastic-munching’ bacteria in oceans. The concept and practice of work in relation to plastics indicates the ways in which it may be possible to re-conceptualize the notion of “carbon workers,” a term used in relation to climate change that points to the diverse if at times problematic ways in which any number of humans and more-than-humans are enrolled in the work of mitigating climate change. Here, I extend and translate this notion of “carbon workers” toward plastics. Plastics are composites of carbon, both in their physical form as petro-chemical hydrocarbons, and in the carbon energy used to manufacture them. I focus on biodegradability as a specific form of carbon work that involves site work, as well as processes of transformation, deformation and generation of materials and bodies. From this study, I then ask: How might plastic accumulation and biodegradability point toward specific types of carbon work that allow for new understandings of material politics through more-than-human material processes? What types of carbon work become identifiable in relation to plastics as they biodegrade, and what types might be imagined in order to engage new material political practices?

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