CIUHCT wins project in the FCT R&D Projects '22 Call
29 July 2022
FCT communicated the results of the FCT R&D Projects '22 Call in all scientific domains.
Maria Elvira Callapez is the Principal Investigator for the winning project MoPRA — Metamorphoses of plastics – reality and multiple approaches to a material, with application reference 2022.05086.PTDC. Robert Friedel (University of Maryland) is the Co-Principal Investigator. The project was ranked 1st in the philosophy projects funded, with a rating of 9.00 in all parameters.
This interdisciplinary project on plastics has many dimensions, each of which contributes to better understanding the tensions and contradictions these materials have presented to innovators, makers, users, conservators, environmentalists, historians, and policymakers. Being indispensable to modern life, plastics pose, however, particular challenges to our understanding. At the heart of these challenges lies the tension between, on the one hand, their role as key agents for convenience, economy, and safety and, on the other hand, their agency as sources of damage to the environment due to post-use persistence and omnipresence. Plastics are both permanent and ephemeral, and this paradox is the source of the social, economic, and political problems that they present. Our project will address this paradox in a range of ways, drawing scholarly and public attention to the problems and the promises that they pose. It aims at adding value in different disciplines, such as the history of science and technology, anthropology, museology, industrial archaeology, conservation research, literature, design studies, environmental history, chemistry, and engineering, combining their methodological approaches with material culture and consumer history.
The term "plastics" covers a wide range of substances, with multiple properties, uses, costs and capabilities. The project will reveal how this wide range emerged and how the materials' technical and economic qualities shaped and were shaped by political, social, and cultural dynamics. Indeed, the intervention of many actors - inventors, entrepreneurs, financiers, regulators, influencers, publicists, and consumers – acting in various ways, was necessary to establish the current place of plastics in the modern world. The complexity of the issues surrounding plastics and the need for a more subtle, historically informed approach can be illustrated by the widely publicized debate over the impact of plastics on the environment. The very first artificial plastics, the cellulose nitrates, were introduced in the 1870s in response to perceived limitations in natural materials and, to some degree, to perceived threats to nature. The most common form of these plastics was an imitation ivory, a response to African elephants' unsustainable slaughter to obtain that material, used in a vast range of goods, from toys to toiletries, to billiard balls. Tortoiseshell turned out to be another early imitation, again in response to the rapidly diminishing populations of hawksbill tortoises. In the first half-century of their creation, plastics were consistently in the service of saving endangered species and supplies. As manufacturing increased and general consumption boomed in the twentieth century, plastic replacements for scarcer, more expensive, or more difficult to work materials became central to industrial economies worldwide. Polymer chemistry and technology allowed the use of cheap sources, such as coal and petroleum, to reduce demands for everything from leather to exotic woods; to scarce minerals. There is no exact accounting of the enormous environmental savings due to plastics being produced in this way, but they should be immense. On the other hand, from the very beginning, plastic materials posed new problems in both manufacture and consumption. Nitrate plastics were highly flammable and caused industrial accidents that cost lives and caused damage in manufacture and use. Later, other plastics exposed workers to harmful chemicals or dangerous processes, or users to dangers from failure or by-products, and polluted portions of the natural environment that were unprepared to absorb waste or encounter novel chemicals. As with all technologies, in the case of plastics, the accounting– the reckoning of costs and benefits, balancing danger and convenience, the comprehension of conflicting interests and usefulness – has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and anxiety.
This project will provide tools for informing this accounting, by using past lessons and the new capabilities of delineating and explaining these lessons. Its interdisciplinary approach will help craft these tools and make them widely accessible. Plastics do indeed represent an interesting environmental paradox. A balanced and historically informed approach to this subject is much needed. Part of the problem lies in the categories we use to discuss this topic, since too much is often hidden by terms like "environmental degradation," "pollution," and, ultimately, even "plastics." In fact, there are ambiguities in the very concept of "degradation"- to be avoided when striving to preserve historical plastic objects but to be engineered and promoted in packaging and other disposable materials. Indeed, even the notion of "disposable" becomes ambiguous upon deeper examination. This project's challenge and promise lie in devising a language and categories that will allow us to grapple successfully with these ambiguities.