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 the monsoon and cyclones.

Plastics on one of Mumbai’s shores Credit: Helen White

Yet as plastic pollution scientist Max Liboiron has argued, while marine plastic pollution is a problem everywhere, the same plastics are not everywhere in the same way. As part of their anti-colonial scientific practice, they note that ways of categorising and accounting for plastics, of developing and testing questions of how plastics affect life, are not apolitical nor universal.

Ways of categorising materials on shores – as debris per square meter, according to their producer or consumer use, by country, city, shore or season – frame the problem of plastics differently.

Scientists studying plastic pollution have thus been similarly occupied with how to account for why and how plastics exist as part of diverse ecologies and how to understand harm and its mitigation. Sampling plastics from shores to create “plastic profiles” is one form that our research project has taken.

Previous studies of shores in Mumbai, for example, include measurements of the concentration per square meter of (macro and micro) plastics and other debris on different shores of the city. Such quantitative measures of the concentration of materials categorised generally as “debris” served in this instance as a method of comparison marking Mumbai in quantitative terms as “most polluted”.

Our inquiry as a research team began with the questions chemical oceanographer Helen White developed in conversation with the Inhabited Sea research collective. White collected plastics from several of Mumbai’s shores and alongside her lab created profiles that categorised her samples by proportion of chemical type – PET or PVC for example – and by size: macro, mesa and micro.

Plastic fragments from Mumbai’s shores categorised by chemical type Credit: Helen White

As White explained, the larger proportion of macro plastics in Mumbai’s samples suggest that the plastics have had less time in the sea to break down and were coming from a closeby source. She also hypothesised that the breakdown of plastics by chemical type might map onto which plastics are not recyclable and therefore not picked up by people in Mumbai who collect plastics.

The pattern of plastics on the shore, she noted, is not just a result of human activities, but also of the way different plastics interact with local landscapes, getting caught under sand or entangled with mangroves.

A plastic bag trapped under sand Credit: Helen White

White’s observations demonstrate the inseparability of the sea and the intertidal zone as sites of “pollution,” from the diverse circulations of plastic through a city which is also the sea, and, more importantly, the people, practices and relations that animate this circulation.

As part of our PlastiCity research project, we traced a small part of the flow of different plastics from their sites of escape, discard and (non)-collection into waterways, wetlands and recycling streams.

Labours of circulation

We begin our tracing of the flows of plastic within the inhabited sea of the city with stories and interviews with a couple of the many people that work daily to access, collect, sort and transport plastics back into production. Those who do the work of circulation – often lower caste – face stigma and low earnings for hours of work yet prevent the city from drowning in its own plastic.

While images of people recovering materials full-time in landfills predominate, people that collect and work with plastic do so within many settings, with varying amounts of resources, through different social networks and alongside many other kinds of work. Despite stigma and low earnings, waste, and plastic in particular, provides a source of income or livelihood when other means of work are not available, adequately compensated or for other reasons even preferable.

Vimal Khillare, for example, exchanges garlic from the market for plastics with households in Sathe Nagar in Mankhurd in north eastern Mumbai. Expertly identifying recyclable plastics from those collected by women in their households, she sells them to a scrap dealer in the mornings and evenings after her work at a factory.

“How would I support myself, my children’s education after my husband’s death?” she said. “Working with plastics was a way out.”

Distinguishing her work collecting plastic from that of working with garbage, she takes her work as a point of pride and independence that has supported her children’s education and prevented her from having to return to her home village for support.

Plastic appears here not only as an object for reuse, but also as a container for histories, frictions and genealogies. In a city that does not equally confer resident status to everyone who lives within it, plastic offers a way for waste workers to construct agency and expertise.

Vimal Khillare makes her daily rounds exchanging garlic for plastic Credit: Zulekha Sayyed

Dilip Chavan, who works in Mankhurd, has also developed expertise in identifying and sorting recyclable plastics. The plastic that Chavan sells is not necessarily classified on the basis of its chemical composition but often by locally known names, like phuga, teri or jhap, which can refer to their method of being recycled or the common commodity form they take (such as a PET bottle).

A scrap dealer next to a pile of PET bottles Credit: Siddharth Chitalia

Payment by weight is the primary form of compensation within these recycling economies. Contrary to the plastic profile from which we began, qualities like material simplicity, size, density and weight matter more than chemical type.

Plastics like thermocol foam, bags, bottle caps, bottle labels and multi-layer packaging are not often circulated for many cited reasons, including their inability to be remoulded and enter mechanical recycling supply chains, their disruption of mechanical recycling machinery, and the large amount of time it takes to collect and transport them in large amounts.

These barriers which at first appear merely technological or logistical – are actually issues of profitability. Plastic circulation rests on how cost-effective or profitable these enterprises are. The low compensation of waste workers throughout recycling supply chains makes circulation without subsidies profitable and therefore possible.

A recycler’s scrap yard full of bottle labels and situated in a wetland Credit: Siddharth Chitalia

How do plastics and other waste that do not get recycled become the “marine debris” sampled on the shore? Many of the city’s inhabitants are already familiar with the waste that clogs the city’s nalas and floats along its rivers. Plastic bags after the 2005 floods in particular – alongside lack of complete desilting of nalas or drainage channels – have been blamed for clogging wetlands engineered to be drains and exacerbating flooding in the city.

Measures taken by the city at least in theory have encouraged changes in behavior in the form of policing, fines, and tax incentives for segregating plastics, using banned plastics, and dumping in nalas.

While likely not the only source of waste in nalas, we talked to both waste management employees and people that work and live in settlements along the Poisar River in northern Mumbai and a nala that feeds into Thane Creek. Despite policies targeting changing individual practices of discard, waste disposal services are not provided to or accessible for many marginalised residents of the city. Neither settlement had an accessible bin within which to dispose of garbage.

Door-to-door collection within private lanes and household spaces that is sometimes available to settlements is often unaffordable. Kiran Mali, who is responsible for both clearing the nala in the Poisar settlement and collecting garbage door-to-door, relies on these fees for a living wage. The nala becomes an affordable disposable option even as dumping ostensibly increases flood risk.

Concretised nala near Deonar dumping ground Credit: Zulekha Sayyed

Yet while intentional disposal into nalas is often blamed for the presence of plastic in the sea, even “proper” waste infrastructure and governance permit the escape of waste and plastics into the sea. Kiran also noted how collection often stops altogether during persistent flooding and municipal officials note how collection becomes difficult by traditional means in wetlands.

Flood events in the Poisar settlement not only make waste collection difficult, but also produce waste by making items unusable and carrying them into public spaces and the sea. The city’s dumping grounds, full of garbage properly disposed, leak into the sea and its contents are carried away with the wind.

A nala near Deonar dumping ground. Credit: Zulekha Sayyed

Floods are a vulnerability produced by infrastructures and governance – like concretised nalas – that attempt to separate land and sea. Just as practices of urban governance have attempted to produce a land/sea binary through the engineered drainage of water and wetlands, so have wetlands, waterways and the sea been treated as sinks for the material excesses of the city without regard for existing ecologies and life.

Mitigating the harm of marine pollution will not only require investments in the wellbeing of waste workers and addressing infrastructural exclusions, but will also require new approaches to producing, consuming and wasting that do not presume matter – whether plastics, sewage or heavy metals – as stable or completely controllable.

This too requires care by institutions with power and resources for both the people and marine life that are harmed by, but are nevertheless at times can make life work under, current approaches which dump and leave to rest whatever cannot be made to circulate.

Cleaning up

We end returning to Mumbai’s shores at Mahim beach, one of several shores that have been the site of large-scale and ongoing clean-ups by municipal contractors and volunteer groups alike.

While many clean-up volunteers have good intentions to reduce plastic harm and also use their clean-up efforts to make different demands for more action, those studying waste and pollution have also pointed out the performative and sometimes even harmful aspects of clean-up efforts.

Angeliki Balayannis, for example, has shown how short-lived and spectacular clean-up efforts obscure less visible residues and materials that are inevitably left behind that continue to cause harm. Microplastics similarly persist even as larger plastics are continually removed from shores. As Nityanand Jayaraman has similarly argued about beach clean ups in India, they often focus on particular spaces considered valuable by the public – in this case “natural” environments – rather than addressing the complex causes of plastic presence on shores.

In reality, materials understood as pollutants cannot be simply removed or disappear altogether, but have become entangled with various environments and organisms.

Mechanically intensive clean-ups can further disrupt these ecologies. Instead some have asked what harm mitigation might look like in a world already “permanently polluted”, mitigation that is continually accountable to ongoing harm to human and non-humans alike.

Equipment for beach clean-up at Juhu Credit: Siddharth Chitalia

The presence of plastics in water bodies and on shores under current disposal infrastructures and clean-up arrangements is not the only source of plastic harm. Plastic production relies on extractive petrochemical industries. Recycling enables this production and only delays the disposal of plastic products that often persist across many human lifetimes. At Mahim, bags and other plastics normally not mechanically recycled and picked up by waste workers in the city are sent to make oil.

Reducing the production of plastic and other extractive material economies altogether is not without its challenges. Efforts to reduce plastic must also consider how waste economies provide a source of income within a capitalist economic system that dictates possibilities for working and living yet also by design produces unemployment and thrives on underpaying workers. The at-times essential uses of plastic must also be taken into account.

Plastic fragments next to their consumer items Credit: Helen White

This means there is more work to be done to understand and engage the lives of plastics. We invite further reflection of the images, videos, stories and conversations featured on our project page.

Adwaita Banerjee is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Courtney Daub is a recent anthropology graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.
Siddharth Chitalia is a recent architecture graduate from the School of Environment and Architecture.
Zulekha Sayyed is an independent filmmaker.

This is the fourth part of a series that seeks to reimagine the futures of the coastal city of Mumbai in its climate-changed waters. Read the entire series here.