Defining Change: What is Plastic?
The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.
-Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Barthes, 1957, p. 117)
-Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Barthes, 1957, p. 117)
To Mould: An Introduction
(Oxford English Dictionary, 2020)
The best place to start is to define what plastic is; what does this word mean? In my own
work, I followed the linguistic routes of the word ‘plastic’ back to their original Greek
definition: the word Plassein ‘to mould’.
All plastic materials can be moulded, but not all materials that are mouldable are plastics.
For example, wax can be melted and moulded like plastic, clay can be moulded into
different forms, but neither are plastic. Wax and clay can be plasticized, that is made plastic,
they can be changed, shaped and moulded, but this does not make them plastics.
I refer to ‘plastics’ - not just ‘plastic’ - as when we speak of ‘plastic’ as a material we can be
referring to a huge number of different materials which in turn create a huge number of
different objects (See figure 2).
I began looking for the definition of plastic as I was working with bioplastics. Bioplastics are
considered ‘bio’ as they come from renewable resources and can biodegrade, but why are
they considered plastic? I also work with kombucha leather – a plastic alternative to leather
which is grown in liquid using bacteria. Can these materials be described as plastic? Should
To answer these questions, we first need a working definition for the complicated term
plastic. Etymologically, plastic is a noun (something made of plastic) but can also be an
adjective. Plasticity refers to ‘the quality or state of being plastic, the capacity for being
moulded or altered.’ (Merriam-Webster.com, 2021) A material can exhibit plasticity without
being plastic, if it can undergo a permanent change when strained or stretched from its
original shape. Conversely, some plastics do not exhibit plasticity, as when they are strained
beyond their original shape they will break before they deform.
Plastic and plasticity do not only exist in reference to materials. Plastic can also refer to
something fake, something unreal, and can be used to describe people. An example I have
come across many times is the ‘Plastic Paddy’- used to refer to someone who claims to be
Irish usually because they have Irish ancestors, yet was not born in Ireland, or has never
been to Ireland – a ‘fake’ Irish person. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to learn
and be changed, altered and adapted in response to different experiences. Your brain is
plastic, it is always changing as you learn new things. The plasticity of the brain is at its
highest when you are young and your brain is developing, but the brain continues to exhibit
plasticity even through adulthood. Neo-plasticism is an art term which refers to ‘new art’
created in response to the ‘plastic arts’ which refers broadly to visual art as opposed to
music and literature.
Therefore, plastic and plasticity have multiple definitions. They are similar in their meaning
to the words changing, stretching, and moulding. In reference to a person, plastic can be
understood as still involving change in that you are changing how you present yourself,
moulding your personality, body or both to your surroundings.
I will explore these definitions of plastic while continually referring back to the material of
plastics. I will interrogate our relationship to plastic, can it ever be positive? What is plastic
and how does plastic as a substance relate to plastic as a concept? I will talk about the
different topics such as definitions of plastics, the ways in which we interact with plastics,
how plastic goes beyond materialism and how plastics can be used for good.
We are all familiar with plastics as material, yet unfamiliar with their history, or their
production process. Why would we be? This knowledge is not required in the use of plastics.
We are more concerned with how to deal with plastic waste. I will argue that becoming
aware of the materiality of plastics, their history, and their journey is required to deal
effectively with plastic waste. I will also go further to argue that an understanding of how
plastics function and act as materials, can allow us to learn to think of the world ‘through
plastic’, to think ‘plastically’.
In what remains of this chapter I will consider how plastics evolved and entered our lives. In
Chapter two, I will examine the ways in which plastic is seen as a bad or toxic and even
dangerous substance and point to the possibilities of bio-plastics. In Chapter three I will
consider the ways in which working with bioplastics is a form of human-nonhuman
collaboration, and consider the ethical dimensions that ensue. In Chapter four, I will
consider and reveal the hidden gender-dimensions of plastic. In Chapter five, I will use
these ideas to argue that plastic offers neither a Utopia or Dystopia, but that engaging I a
speculative approach to its future, we can in fact move away from a crude binary approach
to plastic in our lives. In conclusion, I return to how I have attempted to do this in my own
art practice, and where I hope it can take our understanding of plastic.
A Changing History
To understand literally what plastics are as a material it is best to approach them through
Polymers are ‘very large molecules formed
by the joining of many small molecules called monomers. The name of the polymer comes from the name of the monomer used to make it.’ (Bitesize, 2021)
For example, the monomer ethene can be used to create the polymer poly(ethene), the
monomer styrene can be used to create the polymer poly(styrene), and so on. Polymers are
not only created by scientists but are also ‘synthesised in nature and even in our bodies. The
most common natural polymers are carbohydrates like starch and proteins.’ (Bitesize, 2021)
My own favourite recipes for creating bio-plastics use starch as a polymer. I bring emphasise
the existence of natural polymers, not only because they relate to bioplastics but also
because the history of plastics begins with them.
Humans have benefited from the use of polymers since approximately 1600 BC when
the ancient Mesoamericans first processed natural rubber into balls, figurines and
bands (Hosler, et al., 1999). In the intervening years, man has relied increasingly on
plastics and rubber, first experimenting with natural polymers, horn, waxes, natural
rubber and resins, until the nineteenth century, when the development of modern
thermoplastics began. (Andrady & Neal, 2009)
‘Thermoplastics’ refers to plastics which will melt when heated and harden when cooled
meaning they can be reheated, reshaped and remoulded multiple times. ‘Thermosetting’
plastic is a polymer which can only be melted and shaped once. This means that most
recycled plastics are thermoplastics as thermosets are almost impossible to recycle.
Additives or plasticizers are usually added to polymers when making plastics as they help improve
the polymer’s plasticity, flexibility, elasticity.1 ‘Plasticizers are not chemically bound to the polymer
chains, and thus can leave their hosts relatively easily.’ Plasticizers are also used in bioplastics, an
example being glycerine which is what I always use in my bioplastics.
Here Today, Still Here Tomorrow
The history of modern plastics is usually considered to have begun in 1907 when Leo Baekeland
created the first synthetic polymer named Bakelite2. This was the first polymer derived from fossil
fuels which paved the way for the creation of other synthetic plastics.3 Bakelite could be moulded
into any form and was used to replace rare and expensive materials such as ivory, silk, diamonds and
fur. These objects, once only available to the bourgeoisie, were now available to everyone.
The Bakelite corporation used the symbol for infinity in their logo, a foreshadowing of how
plastics were here to stay. Their tagline was ‘The Material of a Thousand Uses’, with
marketing emphasising their versatility and durability, the path was moulded for this
material to insert itself into everyday life. Plastics were further embedded into society by
the second world war, with plastics used in ‘everything from military vehicles to radar
insulation’. This meant many petrochemical companies built plastic manufacturing plants to
create these plastics. When the war ended, these plastic manufacturers needed to find a
new way to bring plastic products to a wider consumer market.
In her article Life and Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic Heather Davies suggests that ‘the invention and proliferation’ of plastics was mostly driven by a need to ‘simply replace the objects we already had – but at a price and in a quantity that helped to instantiate a middle class defined by consumption.’ (Davies, 2015, p. 349) In her paper ’The Persistence of Utopia’ Wagener-Lawler explains that with plastics becoming more ‘commonplace’ and being increasingly regarded as ‘cheap’, plastic manufacturers began to emphasize the material’s ‘convenience’. She writes ‘The return of women from war-time factory jobs to the home suggested strategic capture of the “women’s market” with the seemingly irresistible triple-convenience of promise of labour-saving, time-saving, and cost savings.’ (Wagner-Lawlor, 2017, p. 70) Cellophane/Cling-film allowed you to wrap your food to keep it clean and fresh for longer. Advertisers emphasised Plastic’s disposability suggesting that instead of spending time washing your dishes, you could just throw them away instead.
Davies also writes that ‘Plastic created the conditions for global trade and consumerism, while these systems themselves became increasingly reliant upon carious forms of plastic.’ A self-perpetuating system was created. Think of the stackable boxes that glass bottles are transported in, think of plastic bags, shrink-wrap.4 As Davies says, ‘the infrastructure and the speed of advanced capitalism, and the fantasy of unending economic growth fuelled by extractivist policies and mass consumerism depend upon plastic.’ Many companies now rely on plastic packaging to deliver their goods to the world. Think of the last time you ordered takeaway food, or a product off the internet. It’s packaging most like contained some sort of plastic. It is the same case for many products fro supermarkets, especially food items.
The creation of synthetic plastics is dependent upon petrochemicals and Davies suggests
that this relationship is ‘intimate’, considering the ways in which we use plastics in our
everyday lives. She gives the examples of how ‘we use plastics to eat, clothe ourselves, as sex toys, as soothers for babies.’, also giving the example of how the internet can only exist due to the ‘thousands of underwater and underground cables sealed from the elements with plastic coating’.
You can probably observe similar ‘intimate’ relationships with plastics in your life, just look
around you. For example, I am writing this on a plastic keyboard and the keyboard is only
functioning because of multiple plastic parts in its hardware. I have been taking notes with a
plastic pen, drinking water from a plastic bottle, I packaged my lunch in plastic Tupperware.
In some cases, you may not even be aware that something contains plastic such as the
clothing you wear, or the bed you sleep on. Davies intertwined we are with plastics, meaning ‘their presence in our lives can be easily taken for suggests that since plastic is so ‘ubiquitous’, so much a part of our ‘daily lives’, it is hard for us to understand just how granted’. Davies says, ‘it also implicates us: there is no way to extract one’s life in the twentieth century from plastic.’
This reliance on plastic materials means the production of plastics increases almost every year and since 2015 the world has produced over 380 million tonnes of plastic yearly (Ritchie & Roser, 2018). To visualise this number let us compare this waste to the biggest animal on earth: blue whales. Blue whales weigh on average 100-150 tonnes (Dimery, 2019), so in this example let us say that all blue whales weigh exactly 100 million tonnes. 380 million tonnes is the equivalent to 3.8 million blue whales. In 2019 368 metric tonnes of plastics were produced in the world. This is projected to increase 33 billion tonnes by 2050 if current consumption rates continue. (Rochman, et al., 2013) This is equivalent to 330 million blue whales.
In this first chapter I have explored different definitions of the word plastic and the history
of plastics as a material. I feel these are important subjects to explore as when we are
talking about plastics, we need to know exactly what we are referring to. As you have seen
there are many materials which fall under the umbrella term of ‘plastic’, and this word can
even be used beyond materials, to describe people, art and change.
1 A plasticizer can be one or more of a possible 80,000 chemicals
2 Bakelite, sometimes spelled Baekelit or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride
3 ‘It was the first synthetic plastic - the first to be derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels. Baekeland used phenol; an acid derived from coal tar. His work opened the floodgates to a torrent of now- familiar synthetic plastics - polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polythene in 1933, nylon in 1935.
4 Also known as cellophane or cling-film