The following remarks were presented at Carleton Climate Common’s Colloquium on Plastics, Art, Activism, and Climate Change on January 24, 2020. Sara Adams is an MA graduate of Carleton University’s English Department.

In my brief remarks today I plan on putting Cindy Stelmackowich’s work, “Plastic Planet,” in conversation with discard studies, an emerging sub-field in the social sciences that goes beyond looking at waste from the perspective of the physical, biological or engineering sciences. Discard studies is not about addressing the problem of waste itself, but rather about contextualizing and analyzing the wider cultural, economic and political systems that produce waste and wasting. As Max Liboiron puts it, the task of discard studies is to “interrogate these [larger] systems for how waste comes to be, …and offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste” (“What is Discard Studies?”). Discard studies asks: what does it mean to systematically leave out, externalize, leave behind, or devalue? In short, what does it mean to call something waste, and what does this act of naming tell us about waste as a site for producing (and also resisting) dominant power structures and theories of value?

Viewed through this framework, discards move beyond being unimportant and dull remnants of everyday life and become fascinating and vibrant tools for thinking through and with our past, present and future relationships with humans, non-humans and our environments. The discarded, as both concept and material object, take center stage in “Plastic Planet”: the plastic objects photographed are foregrounded in the frame and thus amplified, collected together and piled up in order to dominate the viewer’s field of vision.

Each of these images and assemblages foreground the dislocation, fragmentation and dissolution that inhere in discards in both concept and material form. By collecting, arranging and photographing plastic discards, Stelmackowich arrests their flow as waste objects and directs the audience’s attention to their physicality and permanence, thus countering modern waste management practices of silently and efficiently expurgating waste and removing it from view (at least, out of the view of the privileged).

Thus in her work, Stelmackowich performs a kind of waste management that does not seek to dispose of these discards and hide them from view but rather to foreground and amplify their material afterlives, the ways in which these objects stubbornly “last on” (to borrow a phrase from John Scanlan) even after they have reached their planned or perceived obsolescence. Most of the plastic discards on display are unrecognizable as the “terminal commodities” they once were, except for a toothbrush, several bottle caps and a pile of ropes coiled up like entrails. These bitten and brittle plastic shards will, as we know all too well, stubbornly “last on” in the Earth’s oceans, on its beaches, in landfills and in human and non-human bodies on a geological timescale that eclipses human lifespans. These plastics will never full biodegrade, Stelmackowich reminds us, but will rather “slowly fragment…into thousands of crumbs of microplastic,” thus never actually disappearing but rather dissipating ever-so-gradually, with both humans and non-humans living downstream from the fallout. In this way, the “crumbs of microplastic” transform into the seeds of new and increasingly difficult problems that face all life in our ecologically-precarious present.

“Plastic Planet” highlights an interesting idea in discard studies, namely that waste and discards can be both world-destroying and world-making all at once. The world-destroying part seems devastatingly straightforward enough: micro plastics like the ones pictured in the exhibition can seriously injure and even kill sea life, as Stelmackowich notes. Plastic discards can choke, perforate, poison and contaminate because of waste’s fundamental ability to flow, leak, spill, and transform. However, waste’s flexibility and flow can also be world-making, like the molten plastic mixed with sand, seashells and other matter we see pictured in Stelmackowich’s work. These new hybrid, unknown worlds show at a micro-scale how anthropogenic pollution and climate change operate at a macro-level, leading to catastrophic consequences on a global scale. As Myra J. Hird puts it,

We are not so much leaving behind our waste for some imagined future humanity to decipher our history, as we are bequeathing a particular futurity through a projected responsibility for the toxicity, contamination, and resource depletion our epoch created. Waste, therefore, introduces a paradox: the Anthropocene marks humans’ significant re-assemblage of the planet at the same time that it puts an end to any lingering sense to human exceptionalism (Hird, “Waste Flows”).

The fact that waste like the plastic discards pictured here linger and “last on” as long as they do, and furthermore that they do not “last on” in a neutral mode but rather continue to actively disrupt and do harm long after they have been discarded and disregarded, tells us a lot about our social, economic and political systems and how they fail to dwell with the consequences of our production, consumption, and disposal practices. Stelmackowich’s work, however, foregrounds this dwelling-with and, perhaps, the world-making that follows. Just like Donna Haraway’s injunction to dwell with the trouble, in addition to Chris Russil’s related call (at a previous Climate Commons event) to dwell with the doom, Stelmackowich’s colourful and disturbing assemblages make us stop and dwell with the discards. The works in this exhibit isolate discards from their waste flows, immobilize them in still images, and do the work of making visible their afterlives. This exhibition asks us to dwell with the discards by contemplating the byproducts of large-scale, industrial waste flows. It also, I think, galvanizes its audience to learn from and replicate waste’s world-making practices. As plastic increasingly dominates our world and waste of all kinds is rapidly making our world more and more inhospitable to many forms of life, our present moment calls for a variety of disruptions, insurrections, and mixed-modal assemblages that mirror the hybrid form of the “plastiglomerates” or “plocks” depicted in Stelmackowich’s work. We must move forward by dwelling with the trouble, dwelling with the doom, and dwelling with the discards in equal measure. We must also endeavour to create our own world-making projects through the formation of new commons, collectives and political assemblages in our increasingly melting and mixed-up world.

Works Cited

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Hird, Myra J. “Waste Flows” in Discard Studies’ Discard Studies Compendium,

Liboiron, Max. “Why Discard Studies?” Discard Studies, 2014,

Scanlan, John. “In Deadly Time: The Lasting on of Waste in Mayhew’s London.” Time and Society, vol. 16, no. 2/3, 2007, pp. 186-206. DOI: 10.1177/0961463X07080265.