Microplastics by other means? How microplastics can be a tool for inter/trans-disciplinary engagement

by Sarah Schönbauer & Sven Bergmann

Although there is more and more data about plastic particles in the environment, the impact of microplastic particles on the ecosystem, wildlife and the human body is still unexplored. However, the potential effect of such particles has become a core concern in our contemporary societies, tangible in the far-reaching media coverage or in scientific conferences specifically devoted to engage with microplastics.

In one of such conferences, the Micro2018 in Lanzarote (1) Richard Thompson, professor of biological and marine sciences at the University of Plymouth and the eponym of the term microplastics, gave a keynote. He claimed that besides the unquestionably important role of the natural sciences, the social sciences too should play an important role in future research on plastic particles in the environment. He encouraged social scientists to take part in conferences such as the Micro2018, and stated that this involvement would be beneficial for the overall engagement with microplastics. While we, two scholars in the social and cultural sciences, specifically in the field of cultural anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS), think that this is an important claim indeed, we also think that a closer involvement needs to be specified.


Microplastics from Lanzarote © Sarah Schönbauer

There is a twofold reason for this: First, the conference sessions in Lanzarote involving social science presentations on microplastics attracted a large and engaging crowd, and second, there is a plethora of concerns that the social and cultural sciences can help to engage with. For example, we see it as important to critically reflect on the social, cultural and political dimensions of (micro)plastics, such as asking how citizens and scientists address their (varying) concerns or how our societies more generally deal with a yet partially undefined object. Hence, while the natural sciences are predominantly concerned with finding a definition of microplastics, analysing its possible effects on ecosystems, animals and humans, the social sciences unsurprisingly provide another twist.

Many studies in STS have dealt with the entanglements of nature and culture. Thereby, many studies are critically engaging with fundamental orders in today’s societies and are challenging what is societally conceived of as “natural” or what is regarded as “social”. These theoretical considerations are helpful when critically questioning solutions to combat ocean plastics, especially when solutions are prominently based on ideas of cleaning and separation: When biological life becomes entangled or aggregated with the non-living, such as when plastic particles relate to marine animals/bacteria, these emerging entities should be studied thoroughly, also regarding questions of care, responsibility, and relationality (2). Conducting research beyond traditional classifications, such as nature and culture, is therefore not only an academic exercise but also always a political commitment in the search for alternative concepts of the environment we live in and with. Accordingly, we argue that the aggregation of plastic particles in the ocean and the emergence of new hybrid lifeforms on synthetic surfaces can serve as a reflection for how synthetic polymers are part of our lives, environments, infrastructures and even bodies.

The dispersion and ubiquity of (micro)plastics and related substances in the ocean and other environments leads to another prominent concern in the social and cultural sciences: the intertwinements of science, publics and politics. For example, studies of plastic in everyday life have revealed relations between plastic and (non-)human life that show complex “material politics of plastics” (3). Unpacking the material politics of plastics allows us to historically and ethnographically situate plastics and ask important questions, such as: how is it conceived of as waste, how is pollution conceptualized and potentially challenged by plastics and microplastics, who is responsible for its disposal and what powerful stakeholders are involved in the discourse. Thus, contextualizing (micro)plastics as waste and pollution also opens up the ethical, social and political dimensions of its use, distribution and discard (4). In line with this, discard studies, a new branch in STS, are critical of consumer choice and behaviour studies and rather point to the role of infrastructures in waste management (5).
Another example for concerns in social and cultural studies regarding plastics and (non-)human life are plastic fragments and the increase of plastic levels in remote environments or in wildlife and humans. It is however important to unpack the otherwise implicit controversies that allow a critical reflection not only on environmental toxins but also how they are detected, how scientific studies produce specific scientific “truths” or how thresholds are in continuous negotiation (6) Moreover, other concerns demand a careful linking of the plastic/microplastic debates to questions of environmental justice. Environmental justice means to engage with the global politics of pollution and specifically addressing e.g. the colonial race/class-related dimensions of pollution. It demands us to debate affectedness and vulnerability. Discussing environmental justice further means to display involved actors, networks and politics and foster participatory research by critically “inviting apprehension” (7).

In conclusion, we strongly agree with Richard Thompson that there is an urgent need to include the social sciences in order to create spaces for engagement that go beyond concerns regarding technical accuracy of detection or locating microplastics in the environment. But we would also like to add that these reflective stances run differently, such as when they challenge taken for granted assumptions or when they are critical of the social and economic realities that surround us. We claim that the role of the social sciences in this context cannot be reduced to communication or moderation between the natural sciences and the public. Rather, we argue that the social sciences are providing a critical reflection and understanding of (micro)plastics as an emerging socio-ecological phenomenon that has specific politics. This means that we find (micro)plastics a tool of possible inter- and transdisciplinary engagements and collaborations that foster relationships of scientists by other means. It could serve as a good means to address the vulnerability of marine environments ranging from euthrophication to global warming to overfishing. Beyond that, (micro)plastic seems to be the perfect tool for a critical discussion of mass production and mass consumption, the limits of waste disposal and recycling and its ecological consequences in the near future. These problematizations might allow us to align different perspectives in order to bring together matters of concern in yet unknown ways.


(1) Baztan J.; Bergmann M.; Carrasco A.; Fossi C.; Jorgensen B.; Miguelez A.; Pahl S.; Thompson R.C.; Vanderlinden J-P. Eds. MICRO 2018. Fate and Impact of Microplastics: Knowledge, Actions and Solutions. 2018; https://micro2018.sciencesconf.org/data/pages/micro2018_proceedings_book_1.pdf.

(2) Puig de la Bellacasa, M. Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds; University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2017.
(3) Gabrys, J.; Hawkins, G.; Michael, M. Eds. Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic; Routledge: London, 2013.

(4) Hawkins, G. The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish; Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, UK, 2006.
(5) Liboiron, M. The What and the Why of Discard Studies. Discard Studies, 2018; https://discardstudies.com/2018/09/01/the-what-and-the-why-of-discard-studies/

(6) Vogel, S. A. The politics of plastics: the making and unmaking of bisphenol A “safety”. American Journal of Public Health. 2009, 99(S3), S559-S566; DOI 10.2105/AJPH.2008.159228.

(7) Shapiro, N.; Zakariya, N.; Roberts, Jody. A Wary Alliance: From Enumerating the Environment to Inviting Apprehension. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. 2017, 3, 575–602; https://estsjournal.org/article/view/133.

Dr. Sarah Schönbauer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Munich Center for Technology in Society, Technical University of Munich, 80333 Munich, Germany. She currently works on the BMBF-funded “Plastics-Publics-Politics” project.

Dr. Sven Bergmann is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsche Schifffahrtsmuseum – Leibniz-Institut für maritime Geschichte)  in Bremerhaven. His research on plastic waste at sea has been funded by the German Research Foundation and Volkswagen Foundation.

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