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What Mumbai’s sea of plastic taught researchers about the city’s economy of waste


The many forms of petrochemical-derived polymers known as plastic are everywhere. Plastics, like other materials and commodities, have what many might term – after anthropologist Arjun Appadurai – rich “social lives”. They are engineered and produced for particular purposes, part of diverse material cultures and patterns of use and consumption. Post-consumption, they are further discarded and exchanged as part of diverse economies and ecologies.

Nowhere is the ubiquity of plastics as visible or anxiety-inducing in popular representations as oceans, seas, and other settings often understood as nature separate from human activity. As plastics, oils and other materials sink, break down, float and accumulate unevenly with the rhythms of water, they can travel for long periods of time and across far distances, bringing human and non-human lives across time and space into relation.

The shores on which some of these materials arrive serve as sites for people to question how different human relations to plastics might produce harm especially for marine life. As a city made of – and not apart from – the wetness of the sea and monsoon, inhabitants of Mumbai are particularly familiar with the steady settlement of plastics returning from the sea to the city’s shores, punctuated by plastic tides during…

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