Transdisciplinary Pragmatic Melioration for the Plastic Life Cycle: Why the Social, Natural, and Technical Sciences Should Prioritize Reducing Harm

Gauri Sanjeev Pathak*, Mogens Hinge*, Daniel Otzen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperReviewResearchpeer-review


Plastics underpin modern society but also threaten to choke it. Only 9 % of all plastic waste is recycled, usually with loss of quality (“downcycling”); the rest is landfilled or dumped (79 %) or incinerated (12 %). Put bluntly, the “plastic age” needs a “sustainable plastic culture.” Consequently, we urgently need to develop a global and transdisciplinary approach not only to fully recycle plastics but also to manage the harms across their life cycle. The past decade has witnessed an explosion in research on new technologies and interventions that purport to help solve the plastic waste challenge; however, this work has, in most cases, been carried forward within single disciplines (for example, researching novel chemical and bio-based technologies for plastic degradation, engineering processing equipment innovations, and mapping recycling behaviours). In particular, although there has been vast progress within individual scientific fields, such work does not address the complexities of various plastic types and waste management systems. Meanwhile, research on the social contexts (and constraints) of plastic use and disposal is rarely in conversation with the sciences to drive innovation. In short, research on plastics typically lacks a transdisciplinary perspective. In this review, we urge the adoption of a transdisciplinary approach that focuses on pragmatic melioration; such an approach combines the natural and technical sciences with the social sciences to focus on the mitigation of harms across the plastic life cycle. To illustrate our case, we review the status of plastic recycling from these three scientific perspectives. Based on this, we advocate 1) foundational studies to identify sources of harm and 2) global/local interventions aimed at those plastics and aspects of the plastic life cycle that cause maximal harm, both in terms of planetary welfare and social justice. We believe this approach to plastic stewardship can be a showcase for tackling other environmental challenges.

Original languageEnglish
Article number165154
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Chemical recycling
  • Enzymatic deconstruction
  • Harm reduction
  • Plastic life cycle


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