The Anthropology of Plastics: An Agenda for Local Studies of a Global Matter of Concern

,

The cleanup operation at Versova Beach, Mumbai (Photo by Gauri Pathak)

 

Abstract

Anthropology has largely ignored plastics, even as they have emerged as the paradigmatic material—and problem—of our times. In this article, we make the case for an anthropology of plastics as a priority for environmental and medical anthropological research. Drawing from exploratory fieldwork in India, we briefly highlight the benefits and risks of different types of plastics, identify areas for anthropological investigations of human–plastic entanglements, and unpack major debates about plastic control. We recommend analyses that take into account the social life of plastics and the life cycle of plastic production, consumption, circulation, disposal, retrieval, and decomposition. We propose a facilitator role for anthropologists in bringing environmental NGOs and the plastic industry to the table to reduce the human and environmental health risks related to widespread reliance on plastics. Overall, we argue that anthropological analyses are urgently needed to address environmental and global health concerns related to plastics.