Plastics and Toxic Colonialism

The Environment and Climate Change - Lecture 4

Lecturer: Prof Alice Mah

16 Jun 2022

Plastic pollution gained global public attention in 2017 and 2018, following extensive media coverage of marine wildlife ensnared in plastic in the oceans. Since then, the plastics crisis has been overshadowed by the climate emergency as an existential planetary threat, despite the intensifying scale of the plastics problem.

This session examines how the plastics crisis goes hand in hand with the climate crisis, with related yet distinct connections to environmental justice and colonialism. It challenges dominant framings of plastics as miracle-but-menace for society (linked to societal dependence), and of plastic waste as the responsibility of individual consumers (rather than plastics producers and governments).

We will explore key themes of “toxic colonialism” across the plastics lifecycle, from production to consumption, waste, and green technological “solutions”. To conclude, we will reflect on the need for systemic change to tackle the toxic roots of the interconnected plastics and climate crises.


  • Altman, Rebecca. “Time-bombing the Future,” Aeon, January 2, 2019.
  • Azoulay, David, Priscilla Villa, Yvette Arellano, Miriam Gordon, Doun Moon, Kathryn Miller, and Kristen Thompson. 2019. Plastic and Health: The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet. Center for International Environmental Law.
  • Hamilton, Lisa A., Steven Feit, Carroll Muffett, Matt Kelso, Samantha Malone Rubright, Courtney Bernhardt, Eric Schaeffer, Doun Moon, Jeffrey Morris, and Rachel Labbé-Bellas. 2019. Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Center for International Environmental Law.
  • Liamson, Catherine, Sherma Benosa, Miko Aliño, and Beau Baconguis, 2020. Sachet Economy: Big Problems in Small Packets. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
  • Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution is Colonialism. Duke University Press.
  • Mah, Alice. 2022. Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It. Polity Press.
  • Malm, Andreas. 2013. “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry.” Historical Materialism21(1), 15-68.
  • Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. 2002. Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • O’Neill, Kate. 2020. “Can the World Win the War on Plastic?” World Politics Review, March 16, 2020.
  • Pellow, David Naguib. 2007. Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. MIT Press.


Questions for Discussion

  1. Why is the global plastics crisis getting worse, despite increasing public awareness, activism, and regulations over plastic pollution?
  2. How do dominant narratives about plastics reinforce toxic colonialism?
  3. How is the plastics crisis connected to the climate crisis? What are the implications of understanding plastics and climate interconnections for activism?