MoMA R&D

Salon 32 Plastics

In his 1957 collection of essays Mythologies, Roland Barthes likened plastic to ‘the stuff of alchemy… a miracle…,’ with characteristic vehemence. He was writing at a time when synthetic polymers were celebrated as feats of technological progress, harbingers of a splendid world to come, a bottomless resource for all technical and creative needs. Plastics were as malleable as they were transformative, the right materials for an age of mass production and consumption. Widely affordable, they offered a cheap way to package and ship products, connecting global supply chains and serving both industrial and developing communities. As we now know, plastics are as fragile and temporary as they are relentlessly permanent and almost impossible to dispose of. Sixty years after Barthes’ essay, our positions on plastics are much more nuanced. In short, we largely consider them to be an environmental threat of global and epic proportions. As possible solutions––recycling, upcycling, substituting, reducing, metabolizing––come and go and research into bioplastics booms, is there room for plastics in the future? If so, will they resemble anything we know?

Some questions we strived to answer: can we still wax lyrical on plastics as ‘alchemy’ today, as Roland Barthes did sixty years ago? To what extent are plastics temporary, disposable materials? And permanent materials? How did plastics go from enthusiastic symbols of innovation to dated, harmful threats? Are all plastics toxic? What is their future? Is recycling a viable option for curtailing plastic waste? Are all biodegradable polymers good? Whose responsibility is it to manage plastics? The consumer’s? The manufacturer’s? The retailer’s? The legislator’s? What is the role of the city in overseeing plastic consumption and disposal? How is plastic use a global issue? Can we think about the history of plastics as a systemic class issue? As a development concern? What should we throw away? What do we value, and what don’t we value? What do we preserve for the future? What does it mean to be plastic?

This salon took place on June 10th, 2019.

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