Politics and the Plastic Crisis: A Review throughout the Plastic Life Cycle

Tobias D. Nielsen*, Jacob Hasselbalch, Karl Holmberg, Johannes Stripple

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article surveys the politics of plastics through a reading and analysis of more than 180 scientific articles in the fields of environmental science and environmental studies. Despite the many benefits of plastics, the global plastic system is increasingly being recognized as the source of severe environmental problems. Rather than orient the investigation around specific venues, levels, or architectures of governance, our survey first follows plastic through its life cycle, and then considers the major categories of plastic objects addressed in the current literature, and the different approaches taken to each category. The politics of plastics is a growing field of inquiry, with the most rapid expansion in the areas of marine pollution and microplastics. Our consideration of plastic flows reveals increasing politicization towards the latter end of the life cycle, that is, plastic as waste and pollution. Turning to plastic objects, we observe different forms of mobilization, and varying connections between flows and objects, which allow for multiple interpretations of what is at stake. In the closing section, we consider two recent trends in the plastic governance discussion that take a more holistic view of the plastic crisis: attempts to construct (a) a circular plastics economy and (b) global plastics conventions or treaties. We end the paper by highlighting the need for studies to further investigate the norms and practices that maintain the role of plastics in society, as well as the political and economic arrangements that secure its overabundance and low price.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere360
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment
Issue number1
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Published online: 8. August 2019


  • Life cycle
  • Plastics
  • Politics
  • Pollution
  • Sustainability

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