Cahiers de Science politique Cahiers de Science politique -  Cahier n°23 

Interests in a Plastic Bag: a sociotechnical analysis on the (de)construction of different types of plastic bags as ecological Part 1

Luísa Reis-Castro
Université de Liège, Spiral Institute, Belgium, Maastricht University, The Netherlands

1How to understand the emergence and endurance of certain objects? Many authors have already criticized what is defined as the model of diffusion, which argues that “by virtue of its own qualities the product, launched on the market or more generally offered to users, ends up spreading throughout society via its demonstration” (Akrich, Callon, & Latour, 2002, p. 203). This paper can also be included in the effort to contest such a perspective.

2A new legislation on the Municipality of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, requires an innovation on plastic waste management. On February 27th of 2008, law n° 9.529 was issued, demanding the substitution of plastic bags for ecological ones. During one year, as a member of the LACS (Laboratory of Sociotechnical Controversies) from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, I researched controversies around the ‘plastic problem’, having the plastic bags as my entry point for this discussion. I collected information from various sources: website information, interviews – mostly informal ones – with business owners and consumers –, news (television, magazines, and newspapers), laws and regulations, scientific papers, reports, campaign videos and pamphlets, etc. On this context four solutions emerged that attempted to transform plastic into something defined as ecological: (1) oxo’bio’degradable plastic – an additive is included in the fabrication process, which would promote a faster degradation through carbon-carbon bonds rupture; (2) biodegradable plastic – made from starch of manioc or corn; (3) more resistant plastic bags; and (4) charging money for the plastic bags.

3The first section of this paper will give a brief outline concerning plastics, especially on its relations with ecology. Plastic’s characterization has shifted throughout the years, but nowadays it is generally perceived as a serious environmental concern, due to its difficult degradation. I focus first on one of the solutions proposed to transform plastic into ecological, analyzing the associations made by supporters as well as opponents/skeptics of oxo’bio’degradable in their quest for constructing it as (not) environmentally friendly. The choice of proposing and adopting a technology such as the oxo’bio’degradable is not just a mere technical decision, but it is embedded in different modes of action (Barthe, 2009, p. 3) and, at the same time, shapes the modes of action of those implementing it. Based on a literature review, I attempt to outline some of the significances and consequences associated with the oxo’bio’degradable option. Each alternative also represents a distinct definition of what it means to be ecological – and the Belo Horizonte law allowed space for different characterizations to be accepted. Furthermore, the construction of a solution as ecological also includes, concomitantly, the construction of its opponents as non-ecological ones. Thus, on the final part of this paper, I describe the other options, mapping the associations mobilized in order to (de)construct each one of them as environmentally friendly.

4Throughout this paper I will attempt to not give more importance to a ‘social’ nor to a ‘technical’ sphere. I will adopt a sociotechnical analysis, combining a technological analysis that describes the objects and its intrinsic properties and also a sociological one, focusing on the ‘environment’ (Akrich, Callon, & Latour, 2002, p. 205) since I argue that these two spheres cannot be disentangled.

The nature of plastic and plastic in the nature

5The word plastic comes from the Greek plastikos, which means malleable. As a technical term it can comprehend a variety of materials. Nonetheless, when one speaks of plastic in the common sense, we associate it with synthetic polymers. As stated in the Introduction, the plastic bags are the entry point of this case study, and they are made of polyethylene or polipropene. Thus, I will focus on these two petroleum-made plastics.

6Petroleum is composed by a complex combination of hydrocarbons, i.e., hydrogen (H) and carbons (C) atoms. The first step in transforming petroleum into plastic is cracking it through fractioned distillation: a chemical process where large hydrocarbons molecules are broken into smaller ones. Thus, ethylene and propene – also known as propylene – are obtained. These are then polymerized, that is, the hydrocarbon molecules are reorganized, united into larger ones. Ethylene is transformed into polyethylene (PE) and propene becomes polipropene – or polipropylene (PP):

7Ethylene Polyethylene

8(CH2 = CH2) (-CH2 - CH2-) n

9Propylene Polipropylene

10(CH2=CHCH3) (-CH2 - CHCH3-) n

11Chemically speaking PE and PP, as well as the other synthetic polymers, are defined as being composed by long chains of hydrogen and carbons atoms – these chains are giants when compared with hydrocarbons found in nature. They are characterized as being chemically very stable, i.e., unreactive. This stability is understood as an advantage, it becomes a disadvantage when the polymer is discarded and becomes waste: it is this stability that makes plastic so difficult to degrade.

12Plastic was once considered a mere substitute, used only because it is cheaper when compared to other materials. After World War II and especially around the 1960s, plastic becomes ‘chemistry’s prince’. The introduction of the book ‘Plastic World: plastic in history, plastic in the world, plastic in Brazil’ (Mundo do Plástico: o plástico na história, o plástico no mundo e o plástico no Brasil), written in 1972 by Mário Donato with the support of Goyana S.A. Industrias Brasilieras de Matérias Plásticas (Brazilian Industries of Plastic Materials) affirms

it is not without reason that our time has come to be called the Plastic Era. Developed a century and a half ago, plastic has evolved from a substitute position to become a raw material essential for numberless specifications; and with each new modern life necessity soon emerges from the test tubes a new synthetic material, more rational, more abundant, more uniform, and more economic. Science and technic brought light to nature’s secrets, hidden in the world of macrocell reactions, and this epic of discoveries is still far from reaching its epilogue.

Rare were the traditional materials that did not feel the plastic competition or even did not loose its leadership. Synthetic rubber has substitute caoutchouc (cautchu); ‘nylon’ fibers and others compete with cotton, silk, wool, and leather; bakelite, galalith, polystyrene, polypropylene, and many others occupy a position previously belonging undisputedly to stone, wood, and iron; melamine competes with ceramics; PVC, polyester and polycarbonate substitute glass. Versatile and numerous, plastic appears in all fields of our present-day activities, and no one can predict the boundaries of its perspectives.

There is no activity today where plastic does not have its place, sometimes a modest, but usually a primary one. It is medicine and adornment, structure and cladding, toy and tool. Plastic, which began by copying nature, ended up booting its secrets and overcoming it, thus expanding human’s dominance over the world and even opening new paths for the very conquest of space (1972, p. 3).

13Donato – and others – have argued that synthetic plastic could be an environmentally friendly solution for industry’s need of raw material. The reasoning is that instead of, for example, cutting trees to produce a table or shelf or using ivory from elephants to produce billiard balls1, one could use the human-made polymers. In his book, Donato even uses statistical data to relate a country’s development with the consumption and variety of plastics it produces (pp. 50-60).

14Plastic’s utility and capability to substitute materials is nowadays a stabilized knowledge. This black-box is being (re)opened by questioning not its usefulness but its environmental consequences. Due to the considerable size of the chains that constitute it, plastic has a high resistance for oxidation and degradation. When incinerated, plastic releases polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs)2 and other halogenated3 persistent organic toxic compounds. The main sources for the formation containing dioxin, in descending order of importance, are polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), PE and PP (Halden, 2010, p. 187).

15Furthermore, other environmental problems can be linked to plastic bags: they can block gutters and drains, potentially causing floods and other water management problems4; their consumption can be lethal to livestock and wildlife5; their presence in agricultural fields can negatively affect production; etc. (Njeru, 2006, pp. 1046-1047).

16The graph bellow illustrates the relations between the production increase of synthetic plastics since 1900 and the environmental concerns:

17Figure 1 - Plastic production since 1900 [source: (Thompson, 2009)]

18According to the graph, the first synthetic polymers were developed from 1900, around 1940s the use and consumption of plastic products starts to expand, and by 1960s there are already reports of its accumulation into nature. If before synthetics were seen as a possible environmentally friendly option – since it meant that it would not be necessary to use raw materials taken from nature6 – this starts to change as usages and consumption raises. As production increase and plastic begins to accumulate as a residue, it is gradually being seen less as a solution and more as a problem. This is precisely because ‘it works’, substituting a number of other materials with a lower cost, allowing for increased production and faster disposal, it becomes a environmental concern that has to be dealt with. Thus, it is because plastic works as a solution that it becomes a problem.

How to transform plastic-villain into once again the good guy of the story?

19Donato mentions that already in the 1970s, when it was framed more as a solution than as a problem, new technologies were already being thought and developed to deal with plastic’s polluting effects:

Antipollution plastic: Sekisuki Plastic, from Japan, put up for sale (December 71), on an experimental basis, a plastic that when exposed to sunlight, disintegrates and disappears without leaving any residue.  The new product, which the basic composition is polystyrene foam, aims to contribute to the fight against environmental pollution, caused by the accumulation of discarded plastic containers.  This material contains a certain amount of photosensitizer, which is why the products made with it are highly receptive to sunlight’s ultraviolet rays. They can disintegrate within two to four months, depending on the amount of light received. This anti-polluter plastic is designated primarily to food containers, which the amount in the large urban centers begins to cause unrest (1972, p. 20).

20Numerous solutions are being presented nowadays. As stated, I will first focus on the alternative developed by the company Symphony Environmental Technologies PLc, which launched the d2w. This British company was created in 1994 and has 59 distributors around the world, being present in more than 90 countries. The chairman Nirj Deva is a Member of the European Parliament and a former Member of Parliament (MP) in the UK7. When added to polyethylene (most common one) or polypropylene, d2w is transformed into oxo’bio’degradable. I opted for spelling oxo’bio’degradable – instead of oxobiodegradable – because, as we will see, some actors contest bio in the word. In Brazil, ResBrasil exclusively distributes it since 2003.

21Hence, I will try to identify the mobilization to enlist new actors to confirm this technology as the best solution, through common interests. I will analyze the interest translation, that is, the interpretation and framing of a certain object in order to enroll allies (Latour, 2000, p. 178) and through the aggregation of interests (Akrich, Callon, & Latour, 2002, p. 205) more actors are included in the network, making it stronger.

22The oxo’bio’degradable controversy orbits around the characterization of this technology as environmentally friendly (or not). What defines a controversy is exactly not knowing beforehand the outcome, which means we do know if oxo’bio’degradable is a winner or looser, a fact or fiction, ecological or polluter. I chose to first describe the associations made in the attempt to construct it as a fact, and then later highlight the relations that are made aiming to construct the oxo’bio’degradable as fiction. Figure 2 summarizes and illustrates these associations.

Figure 2 - Oxo'bio'degradable as fact or fiction

Actors mobilized in order to characterize the oxo’bio’degradable as fact are in green bubbles.

Actors mobilized in order to characterize the oxo’bio’degradable as fiction are in blue bubbles.

Green and blue bubbles were mobilized by both sides.

Dashed lines indicate a relation marked by uncertainty.

23As aforementioned, the British company Symphony Environmental launched the d2w. When this substance is added on plastic’s manufacturing process, it promotes a quicker polymer degradation based on the rupture of carbon-carbon bonds. This process cannot happen without oxygen’s fundamental help, since the degradation happens through oxidation. The continuous size decrease of the structures allows oxygen to combine with carbon and hydrogen, and for it to be expelled in the form of CO2 and H2O.

24The three following images demonstrate d2w’s action according to the British company:

25Figure 3 - Hydrogen and Carbon chains8

26Figure 4 - Rupture of the carbon-carbon bonds by the d2w

27Figure 5 - Carbon and hydrogen molecules dispersed in the environment

28If, as Latour shows us, the new actors are generally restricted and named by the multiple feats they are asked to perform (2000, p. 149), we can understand the name oxo’bio’degradable: oxo since it is through oxygen, through oxidation, that degradation happens9; bio, which means life, since the final result (hydrogen and carbon) would be easily absorbed by nature. Thus, the result would be no longer plastic – something man-made and of difficult degradation – but something ‘natural’ that could be absorbed. It is for this reason that, as we will see, the bio prefix is highly contested.

29If the oxo’bio’degradable breaks the carbon-carbon bonds, one could assume that the PE or PP would become weaker. Nonetheless, the company upholds it is only after an eighteen months period10 that degradation starts; then there will be a deterioration of plastic’s strength, disintegrating it into small fragments. Until that moment the plastic would have the same characteristics of a ‘normal’ polyethylene or polypropylene. D2w is added during the manufacturing process, but it would not require changes in the production process nor in the machinery. According to the promoters of this technology, one must only include a small quantity of the additive, and, voilà, oxo’bio’degradable is created. With a cost rise of around 10%, producers can already consider themselves / be considered environmentally friendly.  Arguments such as low cost, application easiness, and the promise that the product will maintain its characteristics for up to eighteen months aim to construct oxo’bio’degradable as the best solution to tackle the environmental problem caused by plastic use. Moreover, the fact that it does not demand changes in the production process and allows the polymer to become green while sill maintaining a similar consumption pattern. Also used to argue in favor of oxo’bio’degradable, is that it guarantees jobs in the plastic industry.

The allies’ betrayal

30Oxo’bio’degradable is a contested object, because for numerous actors, the affirmations and associations described above would not be the truth. Among these adversaries or skeptic actors, the role of Plastivida Socio-Environmental Institute is prominent, which defines itself as the “entity that institutionally represents the sector’s productive chain”.

31When analyzing the counter-argument around oxo’bio’degradable, one can notice how statements are able to modify and qualify each other. To illustrate, we can take the claim that:

32 (1) D2w is capable of breaking the carbon-carbon bonds.

33As we have seen, from the breakdown of these links invisible to the naked eye, associations are made and the d2w can solve one of the current major environmental problems, since:

34(2) The carbon-carbon rupture, through oxidation, is able to accelerate plastic degradation, which can then be absorbed by nature (microorganisms).

35Nonetheless, Plastivida – and its allies – revises statement (1) and argues that:

36(3) With the carbon-carbon bonds rupture, plastic would solely go through a fragmentation process, crumbling into small particles, invisible to naked eye, but still present in the environment as plastic, now in the form of an invisible pollution.

37The bio prefix is thus contested, because d2w would not transform plastic into something else but the result would still be PE or PP, which could not be absorbed by nature. As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, chemistry define synthetic polymer as constituted by long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. It is these giant chains that characterize plastic; to break these would be to transform it in something else. The oxo’bio’degradable promoters make use of this chemical characterization, associating the break down of the bonds with the transformation of plastic into something else.

38Plastivida, in its quest to construct the new plastic technology as fiction, succeeds, however, in enrolling a former oxo’bio’degradable ally: oxygen. As stated, oxygen is fundamental so that oxidation can happen. In the landfills there can be several layers of waste above the plastic product, which would hinder oxidation. With oxygen’s betrayal, d2w would be of no use! The only manner to defend itself found by oxo’bio’degradable and its allies is to claim that the objective of this technology is not to solve the urban plastic problem, but to be a solution for the bags set free into the environment11.

39Over the course of a controversy, as Michel Callon (1986) demonstrates us, there is “a simultaneous production of knowledge and construction of a network of relationships in which social and natural entities mutually control who they are and what they want” (p. 6). It is not just the oxo’bio’degradable, the British company that produces it, and the Brazilian one that imports it that are at stake in this controversy. The identity and relative importance of multiple actors will be transformed depending if d2w is defined as fact or fiction. It is the case here, just to highlight some of the most relevant ones, of plastic bags, laws concerning the issue, the soil and water, plastic producers, carbon-carbon bonds, the commercial establishment that adopt the oxo’bio’degradable, oxygen, and consumers. An entire network will have its characteristics outlined and its actors dislocated and transformed.

Notes

1 John Wesley Hyatt’s research on celluloid, for example, was encouraged through a competition launched in 1862 by the company Phelan and Collander: they produced billiard balls and offered a $1,000.00 prize for those who could find a substitute for ivory (Bijker, 1997, p. 110).
2 Organic polyhalogenated compounds, i.e., with multiple halogens substitutions.
3 Containing elements from column 7A of the periodic table (fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine). They are highly reactive and, depending on the quantity, can be dangerous or lethal to living organisms. Except for iodine, all are toxic, volatile in environmental conditions and may cause burns to skin and airways (Moore apud Halden, 2010, p.187).
4 Bangladesh, for example, decided to ban plastic bags from the country after a flood caused by drains blockage in March 2002 (Njeru, 2006, p. 1047).
5 An interesting point is that in India this was seen as probably the most problematic of plastic’s effects, because these bags posed a health threat to free-roaming sacred cows (Clapp & Swanston, 2009, p. 319).
6 It is not my intention in this article to reinforce and/or height the division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, or natural and artificial. Many now renewed works have tackled this topic, discussing how these distinctions are constructed and that there is not a clear-cut boundary between them (e.g. Haraway, 1991, Latour, 2008, Smith Hughes, 2001). Nonetheless, it is not among this article’s aims debate this issue. As Latour (2008) reminds us, to talk in terms of hybrids does not mean that there is no distinction between nature and culture but that this division is not something given, but the late result of stabilization (p.86). Thus, in the case here analyzed I have dealt with this distinction as a stabilized one.  
7 These information were obtained in Symphony Environmental Technologies’ website (http://www.symphonyplastics.com/people/index.shtml).
8 Source of figures 2, 3, and 5: www.degradable.net
9 It is worth remembering that oxo’bio’degradable is not the only plastic that goes through oxidation. The difference is that polyethylene and polypropylene, for example, take hundreds of years to degrade through oxygen’s action, while the oxo’bio’degradable plastic would take eighteen months.
10 In one of its advertisements, in which the degradation of an oxo’bio’degradable product is presented, Symphony Environmental affirms “the plastic material here shown was projected to start to degrade after eighteen months, however by adjusting the d2w formula we can program for shorter or longer periods, depending of the plastic product purpose”. One can watch this advertisement (in Portuguese): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3TGqcpWJTM
11 This statement was clearly made by Eduardo van Roost, managing diretor from ResBrasil, in an interview for the program Balanço Social, channel TV Cultura, at 07/05/2009.

To cite this article

Luísa Reis-Castro, «Interests in a Plastic Bag: a sociotechnical analysis on the (de)construction of different types of plastic bags as ecological Part 1», Cahiers de Science politique [En ligne], Cahier n°23, URL : https://popups.ulg.ac.be/1784-6390/index.php?id=621.