Investigating the socio–material futures of plastic waste in Ahmedabad
Tridibesh Dey is an International Excellence PhD scholar in Anthropology, studying plastics. In this post, he writes about his atypical journey through academic disciplines and practices, and argues why a transdisciplinary approach with hands-on collaboration with different practitioners is necessary to effectively tackle a material as complex as plastic and its politics. He is supervised by professors Mike Michael and Harry West.
From Applied Mathematics to Anthropology
The necessity to consult social scientific expertise dawned on me early on in my professional career.
As an engineer, I was responsible for setting up plastic waste recycling infrastructure for a set of villages in western India, and struggled with the deeply ingrained socio-political links between caste and livelihood, that we had failed to factor into our operational agenda. My French engineering training in the science of complex systems proved quite inadequate, as did my collaborators’ expertise in mechanical and chemical engineering from India’s top technology schools.
In our difficulty to fairly allocate practical responsibility and value, and our failure to ‘recycle’ plastics, we realized that plastic was not only about hydrocarbon bonds. It is a complex of multiple social-cultural relations alongside material configurations – across multiple levels – that co-constituted specific plastic things.
Consulting and collaborating with practitioners – from everyday users of plastic objects to artists, social entrepreneurs, designers and policymakers, sociologists to recyclers and waste-pickers – I learnt that plastic was indeed multiple and complex, and that it was transforming society in uneven yet fundamental ways.
To study plastic effectively – that is, to ask the right questions, identify the real problems, and design fair equitable policies – we need a careful reworking of language and expertise. This is not least to accommodate marginalised yet important perspectives within the politics of plastic. This realisation made me go back to university and undertake a second masters in Anthropology, a discipline whose framework allows transdisciplinary research and practice, with a keen methodological regard for detail.
My doctoral research investigates the socio-material futures of plastic waste in Ahmedabad, the fifth most populous Indian city and the capital of Gujarat, the hub of petrochemical and plastic industry in India.
My study focuses on the various practices, technologies and infrastructures of municipal plastic waste collection, occurring in the backdrop of drastic changes toward the mechanised standardisation and privatisation of solid waste management. I spent over 13 months in the city between 2015 and 2019, and participated in multiple plastic-related practices from working in recycling sheds, accompanying waste pickers, to attending public meetings, interviewing entrepreneurs, policy-makers and administrators, while taking down detailed notes from my experiences.
By chronicling and conceptually engaging with a multiplicity of practices, I sketch the collective emergence of plastics and an urban society. Particular regard is drawn towards the waste-pickers and the informal plastic recycling sector competing with alternative modes of managing plastic ubiquity, like an increased infrastructuring towards high-volume waste-to-energy systems. In so doing, I ask how the material particularities of plastic – high covalent bond energies or its protean adaptability – are mobilized, and how urban environments, population, places, practices and histories are transformed in the process. At the heart of the problem are the important questions of inequality and power in the re-making of urban futures with plastic and plastic waste.
As plastic products and waste accumulate in the commons, the industry continues investment in producing more plastic. As such, there is little doubt that plastics will continue to unevenly impact life processes, enabling, disabling and thoroughly transforming our planetary presents and futures. I activate my multidisciplinary training and practical experiences (as engineer, ethnographer, consumer, waste-worker and finally, as observer) towards assembling new collective knowledge and languages to describe these changes.
Hopefully, my research will inform fairer and more efficient policies, and enable broader representation and nuance within the translocal politics of plastic.
Upcoming Events and Publications
I am presenting a paper at the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) conference (18-21 August) on the co-emergence of caste politics and plastic waste. I am convening a panel with Patrick O’Hare on the subject of plastic and responsibility at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA) conference in 2021.
I published an online article with Mike Michael in April on the politics of single-use plastics during the COVID-19 pandemic. My research article on COVID-19 and its impact on waste-collection infrastructures in India is expected to be published later this month by the Berghahn Journal of Legal Anthropology. Two more conceptual articles around the domestic repurposing of plastic objects are expected for publication in late 2020 and in early 2021.
You can follow my twitter handle @treeonplastics for updates.