Representing plastic

Image by Tyler Stockton, via Shutterstock. Stock photo ID: 786478846.

Suddenly, it’s all about plastic. Every day brings news of the latest piece of the plastic fortress crumbling: The Queen bans plastic straws and bottles from Buckingham Palace; Wimbledon too bans plastic straws, and Starbucks makes plans to phase them out. Numerous local councils, and even entire countries, are banning plastic bags.

Why this plastics tipping point?

My speculation is that plastic is having its moment in part because it is tangible and imaginable. It is a serious environmental problem, but it is one we can all relate to and can take some action against, often without great personal sacrifice. Taking some sort of action on plastic doesn’t require us to wait on governments or international agreements, and much can be done locally. Plastic is something we all know, and can see, feel and imagine. All of this is in stark contrast to carbon, which is hard to visualise, represent and regulate. Moreover, plastic’s tenure in our social life is much more recent than that of carbon, whose inexorable climb began with the Industrial Revolution.

A number of visual representations have helped catapult plastic into the spotlight: David Attenborough’s Blue Planet; National Geographic’s plastic bag iceberg and its hideously plastic-wrapped stork; the turtle with the plastic straw stuck in its nose. But what does it mean to try to represent oceanic plastic in symphonic music? How can it be done, and how does the musical representation connect to longer histories of visual imagery?

A recent event in Sydney gave us the opportunity to think about the politics and the aesthetics of the way plastic has been represented and the relationship between visualisability and action. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Australian composer Katy Abbott’s 18-minute orchestral work Introduced Species: Symphony No. 2. This work, inspired by Matthew Quick’s series of paintings (in particular Intrepid Travellers, which depicts a flotilla of oversized rubber ducks floating on the sea), explores and evokes the environmental issue of plastic in our oceans. In the Sydney event, held at the Seymour Centre, this sonic representation was amplified with visual animations and exploratory talks, including an exposition from the composer herself.

In my short introduction to this very stimulating concert, I offered some reflections, inspired by Jeffrey Meikle’s wonderful American Plastic: A Cultural History,1 about the cultural meanings of plastic, and some hints as to how plastic’s visibility and cultural familiarity might be both a hindrance and a pathway to action on plastic pollution.

Cultural meanings of plastic

Plastic has something of a mythic quality. It is one of the most physically pervasive of materials – so much so that scientists describe some contemporary ecosystems as forming part of the ‘plastisphere’. Plastic is also one of the culturally resonant symbols of our age. It has gone from symbolising the wonders of modernity to symbolising human and environmental decline. Yet alongside this heavy symbolic burden, it nonetheless keeps up a quiet, unremarkable, ordinary presence in our daily lives. I bet there is not a person reading this who isn’t wearing or carrying some plastic, whether it be our synthetic fabrics, our jewellery, or the things in our bags and pockets: car keys or credit cards.

Plastic is a global symbol, but its cultural meanings are inevitably contextual and depend on where in the globe you live. In countries where clean drinking water is scarce, or in the wake of disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, water encased in plastic is a godsend, and the bags and bottles that carry it might no doubt be seen as wondrous bringers of life and comfort.

In sketching the cultural history of plastic in the developed world, three interconnected cultural meanings stand out: plastic as a symbol of modernity; the gendered construction of plastic as a symbol of all that is fake, superficial or artificial; and the association of plastic with toxicity.

According to Jeffrey Meikle, when plastic first arrived on the scene early in the twentieth century, it was understood as fluid, graceful and beautiful. Meikle uses the wonderful phrase ‘chemical utopians’ to describe the industrial chemists who discovered and promoted the extraordinary possibility that ‘organic wastes from the bowels of the earth could be transformed into wondrous shapes and colors’.2

Plastic soon took on an iconic meaning as a symbol of modernity. It radiated all the excitement of an emerging techno-industrial future. It was also fabulous and fun. It had wondrous properties – it was malleable, convenient, lightweight, disposable, and able to be highly colourful. For some, plastic was fantastic.

The association with playfulness grew as children’s toys were increasingly made of plastic. In this guise, plastic was not only fun; it was innocent and often cute. Here’s where our rubber ducks (which of course aren’t really rubber). What could be cuter, or more innocent, than a rubber duck? You, like me, may have grown up singing along to ‘Rubber Duckie, you’re the one. You make bath-time lots of fun’.

Today, given that plastic has been around long enough to have a history, and given its associations with childhood toys, it can point not only to the fabulous future but also to the nostalgic past. What could be more comforting than the hot water bottle, or more hip than the retro chic aesthetics catered to by the shops, museums, exhibitions and websites now dedicated to plastic and its history?

But there’s a very different and equally pervasive meaning of plastic, and here I turn to another plastic toy – one that is regarded with much more ambivalence than the rubber duck. This toy points not to plastic as cosy, comforting and innocent, but to plastic as artificial, fake, superficial, inauthentic. Barbie, I’m talking about YOU.

When I typed the word ‘plastics’ into a Google Images search, one of the search phrases it suggested was ‘Plastics of Hollywood’. What popped up was screenful after screenful of surgically enhanced women – with the odd Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown in here or there for good measure.

Clearly, you don’t have to be a cultural genius to recognise that this second meaning of plastics is deeply gendered. The idea of woman’s inherent frivolity, vanity, superficiality and artificiality is as old as Adam and Eve, and as hard to eradicate as plastic itself. So it is unsurprising to see plastic’s cultural association with fake beauty – with all that is cheap, trivial, transient, garish, and superficial – take a feminine shape.

The cultural feminisation of plastics is not just symbolic. It had a very real social correlate in the role played by plastics – convenient, cheap, disposable and above all mobile – in untying women from the kitchen by enabling us to buy, bring, or bring home food (and later water) on the go.

But the gendering of plastic takes multiple forms, and plastic is not only the province of the feminine. Futurity has its masculine face. In the military, plastics are increasingly replacing conventional materials like metals in armour, military vehicles and protective devices. Being lightweight, it increases soldier agility, reduces fatigue from carrying heavy weapons, and allows the increasingly unmanned weapons of the sky to fly for longer without refuelling. Plastic’s ability to take on any colour you desire – so important to its role as fab furnishing or colourful kids’ toy – also means that it can be made to suit particular camouflaging purposes.3

There is a third cluster of cultural meanings, as old as plastic itself, and somewhat at odds with the previous ones: the image of plastic as sinister, toxic, leaching unknown and invisible hazards into our bodies and the ecosystem.

According to Meikle, popular suspicion of plastic began as early as the 1930s.5 During the 1960s, popular animosity grew. Somehow plastic and the nuclear apocalypse became intertwined in the popular imagination.Ambivalence about plastic was tied in with ambivalence about American modernity itself – the losses and gains of progress. Meikle reports that by the 1980s popular accounts of people allergic to modern world were becoming common, as was anxiety about toxicity of plastic.7 Plastic bags began to be associated with infant death by suffocation. While plastic still represented the future, it was a future full of threats as well as possibilities.

Today, the scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans symbolises another kind of death, at once literal and symbolic. We are powerfully aware that the health of ecosystems and that of human bodies are inescapably intertwined.

Today, images of plastic are central to our often apocalyptic environmental imagination. Images of plastic-as-death proliferate – from the death of birds, turtles or dolphins, to the death of rivers themselves. These images now come in recognisable visual genres. Despite or perhaps because of the fact that plastic appears in virtually everything – from pens to cars to teabags – a number of iconic items have come in to stand in as exemplary bad objects for the whole plastisphere. Notable among these are the plastic bag, the plastic bottle and the plastic straw. While these objects are sometimes represented visually in the singular, a more common visual trope invokes the scale of the problem by depicting them en masse (this is especially so for the bottle).

But not all plastic is visible. Plastics in the environment come in three forms – macroplastics (the ubiquitous, bags, bottles and straws); micro-plastics – the fragments of plastic that we see littering our coastline if we stop to look carefully – and nano plastics, the plastics that we can’t see – that are ‘dissolved’ in our oceans and which come from many sources, including our cosmetics, our toothpaste and the washing of our synthetic clothes.

Plastic, then, is both visible and invisible – it comes as a mountain of objects and a pervasive sinister leachate. It is hard to represent this dissolved plastic in images. This time, when I typed ‘nanoplastics’, Google Images could supply only infographics.

Faced with this problem of representation, the front cover of a wonderful book by two Canadian environmentalists Slow Death by Rubber Duck tries another tactic.It conveys its message about the health and environmental dangers of this invisible plastic seepage by provocatively combining the childhood innocence of the plastic duck with the incongruent word ‘death’.

This brings us back to the Introduced Species event and the plastic ducks that are its core symbol. This event suggested that perhaps symphonic music – an aesthetic form more readily associated with emotion than with representation of a more programmatic kind – could be a vehicle for evoking the ‘chemical soup’ of the oceans.9 Its complexly multi-textured and multilayered bitter-sweet sounds proved to be a powerful vehicle for holding in tension the sweetness and light of the child-like ducks with the symbolism of plastic’s links to toxicity and death, suggesting that rather than being innocents abroad, Matthew Quick’s intrepid anatine travellers might be harbingers of a big wave of disarmingly cute trouble.


1.  Meikle, J. (1995). American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
2. Ibid., p.243.
3. Aerospace & Defense Technology. (2018). ‘Designing With Plastics for Military Equipment’ (1 April 2018). Access here.
5. Meikle (1995), p. 243.
6. Ibid., 246.
7. Ibid., 247-9.
8. Smith, R. and Lourie, B. (2009). Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.
9. Note that this very evocative phrase, which is enjoying a bit of currency, draws on Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin’s equally evocative phrase the ‘primordial soup’.

Associate Professor Ruth Barcan works in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. Her teaching and research are centred on embodiment, the senses and everyday life, with a particular interest in everyday practices of sustainability. Along with Dr Fiona Allon, she is part of an Australian-German research collaboration exploring the sociocultural dimensions of waste in an urban context. Her project for this research is on the revival of domestic chicken-keeping in Sydney.

Dr Barcan is the author of Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices (Ashgate, Dec. 2013); Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Bodies, Therapies, Senses (Berg, 2011), Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy(Berg 2004), and the co-editor of Imagining Australian Space: Cultural Studies and Spatial Inquiry (UWA Press 1999) and Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, UWS Nepean, 1997).