Finding plastic in a dynamic State: Some possibilities

Plastic is political. Throughout the summer, in voices of experts, municipal workers and recyclers, there seemed to be a contest. There were technocratic solutions to the problem of managing plastics as well as positions that held that plastic processing infrastructures are inherently political. Within the latter category, NGOs, trade unions and workers were confident that any change in the system could only be possible with the acknowledgment of plastic and polymer as a structural issue linked to uneven urban development. Thus, through the summer I experienced plastic not only as vibrant matter (Bennett 2010) but also as a material that forges hierarchy and power, through the body.

Plastic in Mumbai helps us peer into infrastructure not just as a technorational system of management but also as dynamic relational entity that is composed of affective, social, and historical elements. Plastic is thus historical as well. In the many becomings of plastic, urban space is constituted as well. This is replete with negotiations, value, power, and leakages. Plastic, as an ecology of practice animates the city. “Planetary urbanism” (Brenner and Schmid 2011) is a useful rubric to think about such ecologies. “There are plenty of factors here. There is no micro level ground planning on how to manage waste”, a municipal official explains as I ask him about how the city deals with plastic waste. He continues to tell me about the lack of concrete data on the quantity of plastic waste that is produced.

Quantities and data become themes that repeat itself in bureaucratic conversations around plastic. Municipal officials who manage the city’s solid waste including assistant engineers (AE) and junior officers (JO), keep repeating that there is no translation of the limited data on plastics that is available into policy. “Plastic and waste largely have become optics. That is hurting the city.”, an official would tell me. Where the bureaucracy would speak in a manner of technocratic visions, workers in the field would often have a different take.

As I found myself hanging around a dry waste processing plant in Thane, I could see the range of practices that follow plastic. From the sorting of the different qualities of plastics and polymers to the re/valuation of the same, I found both the worker’s body and subjective expertise playing an important part. For instance, the monsoon season on paper indicated a higher quantity of dry waste, but as it was noted by my interlocutors, it is often the waste absorbing rainwater that makes it heavier. In fact, the pandemic has meant that workers take up new forms of expertise in the handling and management of waste.

Plastic extends beyond its uses, compositions, and aftereffects towards an ecology of practices. In my fieldwork this position has allowed me to broadly understand infrastructures, biophysical processes, technorational governmentalities, experiences of abjection and hierarchies of being. Often, waste and its circulation defined the structure of the urban space and the specific everyday politics. These structures are not crystallized and are composed of multiple nodes of human material relationships. For instance, the daily remuneration of a waste picker in Mumbai, is decided not only on the quantity of waste that they pick and sort, but also on the type of relationship that the individual shared with the municipality, whether they were formally employed or part of the vast informal workforce (also called volunteers), their gender and caste status. Within this dynamic system, there is a constant negotiation of value and risk which are further performed through leisure activities, everyday gossip, and religious codes.

The matter at the heart of the issue is how do we reconcile material flows to infrastructure? Plastic has been a useful rubric to understand this tension- how do we think of the material as an active agent that engenders political negotiations and refuses mechanisms to discipline. In trying to understand these structures and flow I realize there is also another movement. Plastic becomes not just an environmental hazard but a mask that the state wears. My question increasingly becomes: where is the state? Mitchell (1991), answering the same question refers to ‘structural effects’, where the difference between state and society become further complicated. Discipline, itself becomes a central organizing principle of such effects, and we find a need to “move beyond the image of power as essentially a system of authoritative commands or policies backed by force” (Mitchell 1991, pp. 93). Similarly, as I think of Althusser’s (1971) idea of the state apparatus, I think of plastics in Mumbai framing the argument at an everyday level, where it codes public culture and transnational flows.

References:

Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. Lenin and philosophy and other essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1270186.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Mitchell, T. (1991). The limits of the state: Beyond statist approaches and their critics. American political science review, 85(1), 77-96.

Schmid, C., & Brenner, N. (2011). Planetary urbanization. Urban Constellations, 1st ed.; Gandy, M., Ed.; Jovis-Verl.: Berlin, Germany, 10-13.

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About Adwaita

I am a PhD student at Penn Anthropology and am interested in urban political ecologies. I work at the intersection of the human and material in Mumbai, studying the ways in which ecological flows affect time, labour, social hierarchy, health and notional value.