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Countering the Proliferation of Plastic Waste through Circularity

Plastic waste is a pressing environmental concern, with lethal impacts on ecosystems and human health. It is also a major challenge for a circular economy transition. It is crucial to examine the underlying factors driving the production, consumption and disposal of plastic to comprehend the reasons behind the presence of plastic waste in soils, waterways and bodies.

A qualitative analysis of plastics and its life in our society can shed light on the complexities surrounding the proliferation of plastic waste. A number of observations ingrained in our systems of production, consumption, and disposal contribute to this proliferation.

A Discreet Companion: Plastic has been a ubiquitous material (Barthes, 1957) for decades, yet consumers rarely actively choose to buy plastic. In housing, cars, electronic goods, packaging, clothing and various aspects of daily life, plastic acts as a discreet companion. While alternatives exist for some products, such as wooden toys or metal furniture, the majority rely heavily on plastic for its convenience, flexibility, and affordability. The choice to use plastic lies primarily with designers, producers, and distributors. Asking consumers to prevent plastic waste only has a limited effect.

Passing on Qualities: Designers, producers and distributors use plastic to convey qualities (Callon et al., 2002) essential to contemporary capitalism (Boetzkes, A. 2019. The plasticity of plastics enables production of goods across a range of prices, shapes and colors able to attract many segments of consumers. Its lightweight nature offers convenience. It acts as a barrier for many risks and facilitates ubiquitous consumption and hypermobility. Plastic has become integral to modern economies, supporting the characteristics of production and consumption that drive capitalism. No plastic, no speed, for instance.

Disposability is an Essential Quality: It started with plastic collars, the deepest plastic items that waste archaeologists have found (Rathje & Murphy, 2001). If plastic is so attractive, it is because it is disposable. Plastic requires neither post-use care nor responsibility. The disposability of plastic products [HC1] has contributed to the normalization of waste (Svingstedt et al. 2020) in society. Recycling, or rather recyclability, complements this normalization, considered wrongly as a solution to the fundamental issue of plastic waste generation. Plastic is made to be wasted (Hawkins, 2013). If plastic were not disposable, would it be so attractive?

Inversions of Plastic Uses to Plastic Waste: The attractiveness of plastic does not extend to the post-use phase of product life cycles, though. The fact is that the very qualities that make plastic attractive as a material for production, distribution and consumption are reversed when plastic becomes waste. The capacity of plastic to resist to water, acid, base, and oil, the possibilities to mix it with metal, glass, or natural fibers, or the malleability of plastic thanks to endless combinations of additives – all to get plastic exactly as producers or consumers wish – result in a variety of plastic that represent an insurmountable problem for recyclers. Yet another example of inversion from plastic uses to plastic waste is risk: plastic is excellent at managing risk, but ironically plastic waste becomes an unmanageable risk.

Single-Use Electronic Cigarettes as an Emergency Case: Single-use electronic cigarettes, known as vapes, are a case in point of the problem with plastic. Besides endangering public health, vapes contribute to the proliferation of an unmanageable waste that combines electronics, toxic organic waste and not the least plastic waste. The tension is that there is a conflict between marketing legitimacy on the one hand, and plastic risks on the other. Products such as vapes being released on the market reflects a profound disregard for the waste consequences of marketing practices. Stopping at the source products such as vapes and improved design is always a better way to optimize resource use than to develop circular ways of retrieving materials from waste.

A Condition of Possibility: Plastic waste is not a mere byproduct but a condition of possibility within the contemporary economic system (Boetzkes, 2019; Hawkins et al., 2015). Plastic waste permeates all practices because plastic reflects—better than any other material—a culture of fast, convenient, and carefree consumption.

Tackling Plastic Waste: How can the circular economy address the challenges of plastic waste? By rethinking production, distribution, and consumption patterns. It is a complex challenge that necessitates ethical, cultural, technical, and social considerations, far beyond managerial concerns. Recirculating some plastic and taking out the rest will require unraveling deeply embedded practices and choices in society. Messages and solutions have been sent and posited. Yet, it is crucial to take up the challenge of assuming greater responsibility to future generations based on today’s irresponsible enjoyment of the plasticity, cheapness, and convenience of plastics.



Barthes, R. 1957. Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Boetzkes, A. 2019. Plastic capitalism: Contemporary art and the drive to waste. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Callon, M., Méadel, C., & Rabeharisoa, V. 2002. The economy of qualities. Economy and Society, 31(2): 194-217.

Hawkins, G. 2013. Made to be wasted In J. H. Gabrys, Gay, & M. Michael (Eds.), Accumulation: the material politics of plastic: 1-18. London: Routledge.

Hawkins, G., Potter, E., & Race, K. 2015. Plastic water: The social and material life of bottled water. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.

Rathje, W. L., & Murphy, C. 2001. Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Svingstedt, A., Corvellec, H., & Samsioe, E. 2020. The Normality of Industrial and Commercial Waste: Economic, Technical and Organisational Barriers to Waste Prevention. Detritus, 3(13): 3-11.



This blog summarizes a presentation made at a public hearing on plastic pollution at the French Sénat on May 11, 2023.