Entangling plastics and childhoods in the Anthropocene

The broadcast of David Attenborough’s flagship BBC television programme Blue Planet II has heightened our attention to plastics, especially in the UK. The final progamme in that series documented some of the damage that plastics are doing to the world’s oceans. Plastics have come to dominate environmental discourses to the extent that some environmental campaign groups have called for a re-balancing – given equally (or perhaps more) pressing problems such as climate change, desertification, flooding and the like.

Whatever the relative risk posed by plastics, one of the things that I struggle with is how we might (or might not), or should (or should not) seek to connect plasticky practices, discourses, materialities and processes with childhoods. As soon as one includes ‘children’ and ‘plastics’ in the same sentence, a range of images comes to mind, especially in the Minority Global North: of LEGO; of dolls; and, especially, of the range of claims about the artificiality or disappearance of contemporary childhoods. My question – which forms part of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship called Plastic Childhoods – is to ask how else children and plastics are entangled.

In particular, I want to cut through some of the sensationalist coverage of children, and of plastics, and of children and plastics. I will do this through a range of methods that involve, to an extent, what Spyros Spyrou (2017) has provocatively termed a ‘de-centring’ of children from an analysis of childhood. I have argued that this kind of move might mean thinking beyond childhood (and youth) studies’ insistent focus upon children’s voice, agency and politics – although not at all meaning that we should dismiss our commitment to working with children. Practically, in my current project, this means, for instance, exploring the emergence of terms and images associated with childhood and plastics in social media networks. It also means an analysis of the literal presence of plastics (and especially micro- and nano-plastics) in children’s everyday environments and their bodies. Simultaneously, however, I bring children back into the equation by using the social media analyses in workshops with groups of secondary school students, and by involving those students in the collection, analysis and interrogation of the nano-plastics.

This urge to decentre children and young people is becoming increasingly widespread in writings on, from and beyond the Anthropocene, and particularly those that deploy new materialist philosophies. Although I think any decentring must be done with the greatest possible ethical, political and emotional care – and should not, in my view, be done solely for intrinsic reasons – I do believe that this move can be a progressive one that asks us to think and, especially, to write differently about childhoods. It can also encourage us to look elsewhere for traces of childhood that usually lie beyond our radar as childhood or youth studies scholars.

As an example, think of the massive oceanic trash ‘vortices’ that are gathering, circulating and dissipating in the world’s oceans. These vortices contain an amorphous mass of plastics, as well as woods, metals, vegetation, feathers, and marine life both living and dead. They have become – aesthetically, affectively – emblematic of our plastic problem. Take an image like the one below, taken from a video during a boat ride in the Caribbean (full video available here: https://boingboing.net/2017/11/20/boaters-stumble-on-massive-car.html)

figure 3. what

The video was taken on a tourist boat ride. At one point – as the music blares and the boat drifts through the vortex – a female American voice sounds from off-camera. She begins to list off a range of objects, whilst others are visible on-screen. Plastics – and, on occasions, the plastics constitutive of especially Western childhoods – are prominent: sandals, dolls, toy cars, bottles… . For me, watching and listening to the video is reminiscent of Bruno Latour’s (2005) analysis of the effects and affects produced by listing. As he argues, listing renders the most quotidian and taken-for-granted objects somewhat distant. That distance may be created by the listing (the cataloguing) done by trained professionals – the distance create by archaeological excavation and display, for instance. Or, in this case, that distance is created by a voice calmly and somewhat monotonously listing a range of everyday (childhood) objects encountered during what no doubt started out as an idyllic cruise off the coast of Honduras.

Watching this video raises a number of questions: both in terms of my immediate interest in childhood and plastics; and in terms of where, when and how we do childhood and youth studies. At present I don’t – and, I suspect, as a community, we don’t – have all the answers to these questions. Given the occasional emergence and/or absent presence of children (or, at least, objects associated with some kinds of childhoods), is this trash vortex a legitimate site for childhood and youth studies? Since they range from the very tiny (nano) the very large (planetary): how do we conceptualise and study the scales of plastics, as they become entangled with childhoods, when childhood and youth studies scholars scalar range is usually far more limited? How can we or should we seek to integrate children’s ‘voice’, ‘agency’, ‘politics’, ‘rights’ (etcetera) into analyses of phenomena like oceanic trash vortices? And, how can or should we link up objects/spaces like trash vortices with other objects/spaces of contemporary childhoods: toy factories; garbage heaps where some children work; bedrooms; digital technologies…? These questions could form starting points that might enable a broader and more critical interrogation of children’s entanglements with plastics, and I look forward to ideas, discussion and critiques as to how we might move forward in addressing them.


Kraftl, P., 2013. Beyond ‘voice’, beyond ‘agency’, beyond ‘politics’? Hybrid childhoods and some critical reflections on children’s emotional geographies. Emotion, Space and Society, 9, pp.13-23.

Spyrou, S. (2017) Time to decenter childhood? Childhood. 24:  433-437.

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