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Plastic bottles recycled as tools to hold seaweed fields afloat in the Bunaken Islands - © Diederik Rooker

Beyond plastic: why humanities scholars study waste

In a new series of articles, we explore how the humanities study topics related to sustainability. First up: waste. How and why study waste as a humanities scholar? We asked Elena Burgos Martinez, University Lecturer South and Southeast Asian Studies, and Katarzyna Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japan Studies.

Where did the plastic come from? When did it first appear?

‘People worry a lot about waste pollution in the Pacific Ocean but at same the time they often forget to look at waste pollution in the canal next to them.’ For years, Elena Burgos Martinez has researched the impact of waste circulation and pollution in the Bunaken Archipelago in the east of Indonesia. ‘They’re beautiful islands but there’s a lot of plastic pollution. When we see beaches covered in plastic, our first thought is: “How do we get rid of it?” But that’s a very bio-centric approach and it ignores the underlying structural issues of the plastic issue. Like, where did the plastic come from? When did it first appear? Who introduced it? What were the local notions of sustainability before waste came on the scene? And then comes the question of how we can work with those local notions to tackle the accumulation of plastic.’

‘We also tend to forget that pollution does not affect everybody homogeneously, and that the existing political and economic status quo is also affected by changes in our environments. We need to focus more on the existing inequalities and power relations prior to the accumulation of waste, or that make accumulation possible, to properly understand the core of the problem. There is a link between structural racism and pollution that is often forgotten.’

According to UNESCO, over 220 million tons of plastic are produced each year. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic.

‘Before, you were too underdeveloped; now you are too dirty’

In the Bunaken Archipelago, plastic pollution has been an issue since the early 2000s. Burgos Martinez: ‘In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, international environmental organisations pushed regional governments to help local communities become more sustainable. Manado, the provincial capital, responded by promoting the use of concrete as a material to build houses and by introducing TVs, plastic bottles and containers. All those objects started accumulating, and, years later, the same development and environmental organisations started telling the inhabitants they must now ban plastic and other toxic materials. “Before, you were too underdeveloped; now you are too dirty”, seemed to be the narrative. Such shifting narratives generate a lot of confusion and further strengthen the complex power imbalances in the area. This is how regional and international dimensions impact local communities. There are a lot of endemic environmental initiatives on the islands, and external bodies are simply not interested in people’s opinions and leading agency; they just work in terms of quota.’

‘I also see it in The Hague, where I live,’ Burgos Martinez continues. Some neighbourhoods are blamed for being dirty or less developed because there’s a lot of trash on the streets. These are similar narratives to the ones of the Bunaken islands. It has nothing to do with the ‘cultural habits’ of the people living in these neighbourhoods. Maybe the neighbourhood has been neglected by the municipality; perhaps the cleaning services don’t clean as often as they do in the city centre in The Hague. Perhaps people are discouraged from actively partaking in local discussions due to systematic profiling and welfare policy that is designed on that basis.’

Plastic bottles recycled as tools to hold seaweed fields afloat. © Diederik Rooker

‘Looking at waste critically allows us to look at a broader sense of political relationships and power inequalities. Waste is not endemic to places; not in The Hague, not in Indonesia, not anywhere. It’s a sign of clashes in environmental knowledge and of systematic discrimination. If you’ve been neglected or discriminated against, you will rebel, even against recycling. You can see this among young people, for example: some throw trash on the ground as an act of rebellion because they’ve been oppressed in other ways. But policymakers often work their way through these problems too fast. They tend to want immediate relief to generate a certain revenue out of the environmental schemes they introduce. As a result, the solutions proposed are too technologically absolute and that doesn’t work everywhere. That’s why the sciences need the humanities and social sciences: to put the waste issue in context.’

‘Recycling in communist Poland was a necessity rather than choice’

Like Burgos Martinez, Cwiertka employs her humanities background to look “beyond the waste itself”. ‘To say that plastic is bad is an oversimplification. The invention of plastic sparked off a whole range of inventions that shaped modern life as we know it. To understand why we have a waste problem, we need to understand waste before it becomes waste: packaging materials, for instance. But equally, we need to understand the social and economic developments thrughout the twentieth century that have created the conditions that allow our current, largely unsustainable practices, to thrive. The proliferation of plastic packaging, for example, is closely related to the rise of the supermarket, an institution few of us would like see abolished.’ 

Recyling bins outside a supermarket in Kobe, Japan.

‘I am currently investigating the history of food packaging in three different contexts: the Netherlands (where I currently live), Poland (where I grew up) and Japan, which is my main area of expertise. The similarities in how these three societies integrated plastic packaging into their everyday practices despite considerable political, economic and cultural differences, is fascinating. Recycling in communist Poland was a necessity rather than choice, due to the constant lack of resources. But when the country’s economy opened up, during the 1990s, Polish people eagerly replicated the wasteful practices from the other side of the iron curtain. For Japan, in contrast, this was the period when the ideal of the circular economy gained momentum, turning the Japanese into champion recyclers, but they remain reluctant to abandon their penchant for multi-layered wrapping.’

‘Climate also affects waste. In Japan, summers are very humid, which means that perishable products require high-tech plastic packaging and oxygen absorbers to prevent the growth of mould and other signs of spoilage. On the other hand, ever since the rapid economic growth of the 1960s, Japanese consumers have become accustomed to a level of quality and convenience which is difficult to achieve without polyethylene films, aluminium-laminated cartons and tiny, ultra-light PET bottles.’

Mass consumption didn’t just fall from the sky one day

So how can the humanities help to improve policy on tackling the waste issue? Cwiertka isn’t so sure it can: ‘I used to believe that our scholarly work on waste could reach and influence policymakers. But now I think there's much more long-term value in fostering awareness among new generations than trying to influence policymakers.’

‘It’s essential to see the waste issue in a historical context. Mass production and consumption aren’t something that just fell from the sky one day. They are the result of historical developments. Today, many students bring their own water bottles to lectures and there are water taps in every university building. Why do you think that is? It’s because people are starting to recognize the behavioural dimensions behind the waste issue.’

The odd sociologist

As calls for a unified approach to the plastic issue are increasing, how are the humanities working together with science scholars on matters of waste? ‘There’s much to gain here,’ Cwiertka says. ‘To write about the technological advances that impact society as a humanities scholar, I am expected to have a basic understanding of the sciences. This does not seem to be the case the other way around – for science scholars to have a basic understanding of issues within the humanities. The biggest challenge is to convince hard science researchers of the value of humanities knowledge. A good example is the medical experts and virologists who—understandably—are taking the stage in many talk shows these days claiming that national character might be responsible for the different levels of success in fighting Covid-19. While they treat their own data very carefully, they seem to be much less careful in perpetuating cultural stereotypes and other societal issues they only have anecdotal knowledge of.’ 

‘On a positive note, I definitely see opportunities for collaboration. This semester, I am teaching a course called A cultural history of plastic. I teach the course in collaboration with researchers from Delft University. To co-write a paper with a science scholar might be difficult because we have a very different style of academic writing. But it’d be interesting to write on the same topic from our different academic backgrounds. That might be quite fun!’

Burgos Martinez agrees. ‘The idea that the humanities just do romantic things, like creating poetry, and that the humanities cannot be applied in practical situations, is quite persistent. Of course, I can work with scientists, but it has to be on fair terms. In Indonesia I worked in teams that mainly consisted of marine scientists and earth scientists. Among a large group of hard scientists, I was the “odd sociologist”, so to speak. But I also need the space to express my expertise freely. Perhaps we should make an academic waste network and then we can invite the “odd scientist”, haha!’

This article is part of a new series on how scholars at the Faculty of Humanities study topics related to sustainability.

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