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Plastic Hierarchies

Posted on May 14, 2020 by Tony Cho
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Plastics is humanity’s largest obsession when it comes to material. Cheap, flexible, versatile, plastics remain the material of choice for nearly all of our consumer products. Plastic has found a way to encompass every inch of our lives in a literal matter. From plastic bags, mattresses, cable insulation, household appliances, drainage pipes, to bottles and medical implants, using plastic is not a choice but simply a part of our contemporary lives. While plastics have been around for some time, it is only over the few decades that it’s ubiquity has been critically examined as one of the most pressing issues when speaking of anthropogenic change in the Anthropocene.

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Plastic waste then becomes an interesting point of reference when it comes to obsessions. As obsessed and embedded with plastics as society is, there is significantly less literacy as to what happens to plastics after it’s life. For most of the consumers, the journey of plastics ends when it is dumped into a plastic recycling bin. In places like South Korea, a very rigorous ritual of plastic recycling separation is known to its citizens, as they are told to recycle plastic wrap, plastics, can, glass, paper, and trash separately. Less known is the fact that most of these separate plastics never make it to the recycling process as most waste recycling service companies refuse to recycle any bundle that may not be separated correctly. Even less known to most people in Korea is the fact that Korea consumes the most plastic per capita, as can be seen with a variety of packaged foods and consumer products. One only has to venture to a local market to see individual vegetables packed in plastic wrap and snacks and candy individually wrapped. And while zero waste shops and package-lite foods are becoming more commonplace in the media landscape, their channels remain narrow and geared for the urban elite. Of course everyone would like to be eco-conscious, but who can afford it when the mark-up cost for consuming such items is outside the budget.

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Such hierarchy doesn’t just exist on a consumer level, but it also presents itself through geopolitics. Like the individual’s psychology to get rid of the trash, this way of thinking is also prevalent on the country level. But while most people will believe that all of our plastic lives in the oceans, a significant percentage of plastics remain in landfills and processing plants, which means that stakeholders exist, who aim to make profit of plastic waste. It is the most literal visualization of another man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This was China’s case for many years as very many treatment plants existed in China. However in 2018, due to the release of the documentary, Plastic China, the Chinese government decided that it would close its doors to plastic processing. This would prove to be an extreme measure as almost 50% of the world’s plastic waste was being exported to China at the time. The ripple effect would be tremendous for neighboring countries as suddenly plastic waste was forced to go elsewhere. One of the countries to fall to this fate was South Korea as two times as much plastic was imported than exported in 2018 as a result of this issue. Before China had banned the importing of plastic waste, many developed countries in the west such as Germany, Nederlands, etc would send a significant amount of their plastics to China who would then process, sort, and pass the remaining waste to developing countries. With this middleman out, South Korea was one of the few countries in Asia that the OECD demanded to take the plastic waste. However, such a transition is never so smooth, the most obvious example being in 2018 when South Korean companies were accused of illegally sending 1,400 tonnes of trash to the southern Philippine islands. The flow of trash from western countries (USA & Europe) to developed Asian countries (your Japan, Korea, China) and then to the developing Asian countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand) goes to show that neoliberal hierarchy lives on even within the flow of trash. The idiom, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ should be then amended to ‘one privileged man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ In this way plastic waste becomes one of the many ways that makes geopolitical hierarchy visible.

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The existence of these hierarchies are made prevalent upon inspecting urban cities. Take Seoul for example. Seoul’s (and Korea for that matter) rapid economic rise has been well documented by western scholars. For the Korean government and the Seoul Municipal government this meant new opportunities to develop Seoul into a world class city. One of the city’s main areas of redevelopment included Nanjido, a small island on the bank of the Han river that was used as a landfill site for all of Seoul’s trash. For the years that this site was active, the landfill site was poorly mismanaged as the city did not employ any modern landfill techniques to treat gas and leachate generated from the site. According to previous studies the site itself went for 15 years without even covering the garbage with soil. It was also the location where the socio-economically vulnerable citizens had to live, as land around landfill sites are devalued. Called a dangerous eyesore from Seoul’s municipality, from the years 1991 to 1996, an ambitious project was developed to stabilize the land and create an ecological park on top of it’s landfill. But waste, especially plastic waste is something that does not disappear, merely passed in the ladder of hierarchy. In cases like Nanjido, where passing it off was not an option, there was only one solution to developing this land- to build on top of it. The Seoul municipality’s proposal of the Nanjido Park was to build a wall around the waste and build layers of soil on top so that the park could rest on soil for plants and trees to grow on. This strategy of cover-up terraforming only highlights the fact that should remain at the very bottom of a hierarchy, invisible and away. It remains to be seen whether the project can be seen as a success or failure. While the government says that methane gas, leachate, and sludge is being treated from underneath, something about a hidden and massive landfill site underneath what was dubbed the ‘Central Park of Seoul’ may present itself to serious problems in the future.

Plastics are one the greatest obsessions of our time. Spending trillions to manufacture and use, and spending just as much to move, hide, and take them out of our site. The irony is felt, that plastics most desirable qualities (durability), which is the reason that it’s been produced on such a massive scale has also become the greatest threat to humanity. Truly an artifact of our times, there is no doubt that those (in the future) who uncover the plastics of our generation will find not only the plastic artifacts but the artifacts of hierarchy embroiled in plastics.