Plastic Asia

Material Ambiguities and Cultural Imaginaries


  • Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko University of Copenhagen
  • Trine Brox University of Copenhagen



waste, pollution, purity, plastic modernity, plastic usage


This introduction to the special issue of Plastic Asia emphasises the ambiguous and unsettling materiality of plastics. It describes how in Asian contexts, the relationships between plastics, purity and pollution are complex: simultaneously promising purity, quality and hygiene, yet frequently failing to fulfil these promises. It looks at how plastics, for some, have come to signify broader frustrations with modernity and the complexities of plastics when they are incorporated into ritual life.

Author Biographies

Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, University of Copenhagen

SASKIA ABRAHMS-KAVUNENKO is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Email:

Trine Brox, University of Copenhagen

TRINE BROX is an associate professor in Modern Tibetan Studies and the director of Center for Contemporary Buddhist Studies at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Email:


Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia 2019. Enlightenment and the Gasping City: Mongolian Buddhism at a Time of Environmental Disarray. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia 2021. ‘Toward an Anthropology of Plastics’. Journal of Material Culture (Dec.): 1-21.

Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia 2022. ‘Zombie Rubbish and Mummy Materiality: The Undead and the Fate of Mongolian Waste’. In T. Brox and E. Williams-Oerberg (eds.) Buddhism and Waste: The Excess, Discard, and Afterlife of Buddhist Consumption. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 145-166.

Appadurai, Arjun (ed.) 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, Roland 1972 [1957]. Mythologies. Translated by Annett Levers. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bergman, Åke, Jerrold J. Heindel, Susan Jobling, Karen A. Kidd and R. Thomas Zoeller 2013. State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012. Prepared for the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization. (accessed 4 June 2021).

Bhutia, Kalzang Dorjee 2022. ’Can Pollution Bring Balance to the Hidden Land? Fibreglass Interventions in the Ecology of Sikkimese Cham’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 40 (1).

Bredenbröker, Isabel 2020. ‘The Last Bath: Cleaning Practices and the Production of “Good Death” in an Ewe Town’. In I. Bredenbröker, C. Hanzen, and F. Kotzur (eds.) Cleaning and Value: Interdisciplinary Investigation. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Brooks, Amy L., Shunli Wang, and Jenna R. Jambeck 2018. ‘The Chinese Import Ban and its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade’. Science Advances 4 (6): 1-7.

Brox, Trine 2022. ‘Plastic Skinscapes in Tibetan Buddhism’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 40 (1).

Chao, Sophie 2018. ‘The Plastic Cassowary: Problematic “Pets” in West Papua’. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 84 (5): 828-848.

CIEL 2019. ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’. Center for International Environmental Law. (accessed 12 October 2020).

Colombijn, Freek 2020. ‘Secrecy at the End of the Recycling Chain: The Recycling of Plastic Waste in Surabaya, Indonesia’. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 3 (1): 1-10.

Dey, Tridibesh, and Mike Michael 2021. ‘Plastic Possibilities: Contrasting the Uses of Plastic “Waste” in India’. Anthropology Today. 37 (3): 11-15.

Diemberger, Hildegard, and Samanta Skrivere 2021. ‘Piles of Plastic on Darkening Himalayan Peaks: Changing Cosmopolitics of “Pollution” in Limi, Western Nepal’. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (1): 1-13.

Gupta-Nigam, Anirban 2020. ‘Plastic Flowers: Overlooking Resource Scarcity in Postwar America’. Theory, Culture and Society 37 (6): 111-133.

Grün, Felix, and Bruce Blumberg 2009. ‘Endocrine Disrupters as Obesogens’. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology. 304 (1-2): 19-29.

Gabrys, Jennifer, Gay Hawkins, and Mike Michael 2013. ‘Introduction: From Materiality to Plasticity’. In J. Gabrys, G. Hawkins, and M. Michael (eds.) Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-14.

Halden, Rolf U. 2010. ‘Plastics and Health Risks’. Annual Review of Public Health 31 (1): 179-194.

Hawkins, Gay 2001. ‘Plastic Bags: Living with Rubbish’. International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (1): 5-23.

Hawkins, Gay 2013. ‘Made to be Wasted: PET and Topologies of Disposability’. In J. Gabrys, G. Hawkins, and M. Michael (eds.) Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. New York: Routledge, pp. 49-67.

Hawkins, Gay 2018. ‘Plastic and Presentism: The Time of Disposability’. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 5 (1): 91-102.

Hawkins, Gay, Emily Potter, and Kane Race 2015. Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Liang, Yangyan, Quanyin Tan, Qingbin Song, and Jinhui Li 2021. ‘An Analysis of the Plastic Waste Trade and Management in Asia’. Waste Management 119: 242-253.

Liboiron, Max 2016. ‘Redefining Pollution and Action: The Matter of Plastics’. Journal of Material Culture 21 (1): 87-110.

Liboiron, Max 2019. ‘Waste is Not “Matter Out of Place”’. (accessed 7 September 2020).

Liboiron, Max 2021. Pollution is Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press.

McDougall, Debra 2021. ‘Trash and Treasure: Pathologies of Permanence on the Margins of our Plastic Age’. In G. Hage (ed.) Decay. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 28-36.

McKay, Deirdre, and Padmapani L. Perez 2018. ‘Plastic Masculinity: How everyday objects in plastic suggest men could be otherwise’. Journal of Material Culture 23 (2): 169-186.

McKay, Deirdre, Padmapani Perez, and Lei Xiaoyu 2021. ‘Plastics Talk/Talking Plastics: The Communicative Power of Plasticity’. In T. Farrelly, S. Taffel, and I. Shaw (eds.) Plastic Legacies: Pollution, Persistence, and Politics. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press.

McKay, Deirdre, Elyse Stanes, Nicole Githua, Xiaoyu Lei, and Simon Dixon 2020. ‘On Global Plasticity: Framing the Global Through Affective Materiality’. New Global Studies 14 (3): 307-326.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. 1995. American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. 1997. ‘Material Doubts: The Consequences of Plastic’. Environmental History 2 (3): 278-300.

Meiu, George 2020. ‘Panic Over Plastics: A Matter of Belonging in Kenya’. American Anthropologist 122 (2): 222-235.

Nielsen, Tobias D., Jacob Hasselbalch, Karl Holmberg and Johannes Stripple 2020. ‘Politics and the Plastic Crisis: A Review throughout the Plastic Life Cycle’. Energy and Environment 9 (1): 1-28.

Pathak, Gauri 2020a. ‘“Plastic Pollution” and Plastics as Pollution in Mumbai, India’. Ethnos. Epub ahead of print.

Pathak, Gauri 2020b. ‘Permeable Persons and Plastic Packaging in India: From Biomoral Substance Exchange to Chemotoxic Transmission’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 26 (4): 751-765.

Pathak, Gauri 2021. ’Nation Branding, Soft Hindutva, and Ecotraditionalism in Anti-Plastics Discourses in India’. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. Epub ahead of print.

Pathak, Gauri 2022. ‘Permeable Persons, Impermeable Packaging and the Pandemic: Plastics, Risks and COVID-19’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 40 (1).

Pathak, Gauri, and Mark Nichter 2019. ‘The Anthropology of Plastics: An Agenda for Local Studies of a Global Matter of Concern’. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33 (3): 307-326.

Pathak, Gauri, and Mark Nichter 2021. ‘Ecocommunicability, Citizenship and Discourses on Plastic Control in India’. Geoforum 125 (2021): 132-139.

Reichhardt, Björn, and Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko 2022. ‘Plastic Purity and Sacred Dairy: Microbes, Vitality, and Standardisation in Mongolian Dairying’. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 40 (1).

Schlehe, Judith, and Vissia Ita Yulianto 2020. ‘An Anthropology of Waste: Morality and Social Mobilisation in Java’. Indonesia and the Malay World 48 (140): 40-59.

Schulz, Yvan 2019. ‘Plastic China: Beyond Waste Imports’. In I. Franceschini, N. Loubere, K. Lin, E. Nesossi, A. E. Pia, and C. Sorace (eds.) Dog Days: Made in China Yearbook 2018. Canberra: ANU Press, pp. 274-280.

Steger, Brigitte 2021. ‘”Stingy, Stingy, Stingy Government”: Mixed Responses to the Introduction of the Plastic Carrier Bag Levy in Japan’. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (1): 1-11.

Wang, Chao, Longfeng Zhao, Ming K. Lim, Wei-Qiang Chen, and John W. Sutherland 2020. ‘Structure of the Global Plastic Waste Trade Network and the Impact of China’s Import Ban’. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 153 (2020):

Wirtz, Kristina 2009. ‘Hazardous Waste: The Semiotics of Ritual Hygiene in Cuban Popular Religion’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (3): 476-501.

Yang, Chun Z., S. Yaniger, C. Jordan, D. Klein, and G. Bittner 2011. ‘Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A potential health problem that can be solved’. Environmental Health Perspectives 119 (7): 989–996.