Grassroots: How microplastics memes took over

Microplastics are in your body, and you crave them. They are unionizing. You are eating them so turtles do not have to. They come in a salt shaker. The Pope found microplastics in holy water. When you grow sick of microplastics and crave something larger, worry not: You can eat a Frisbee.

Across social media, microplastics are everywhere as public concerns around pollution and health impacts mount.

The subject of all this content is tiny: Microplastics are fragments, less than 5 millimeters in length, and increasingly notorious for their role in contaminating the environment when they are shed through sources like cosmetics, industrial processes or packaging. Advocates have long emphasized the risks they pose, along with larger plastics. But widespread public awareness online has only come in the past few years.

“When I first started working in the plastics space [years ago], no one was talking about it,” said Rebecca Altman, a writer and sociologist. “The level on which plastics have become a mass issue has swelled since then.”

The “memeification” of microplastics, or the process of turning something into a cultural element that spreads through imitation, has increasingly brought a major environmental issue into mainstream consciousness.

“When important topics become a part of popular culture and mainstream media, it shows up in the form of social media content,” said Julia Cohen, co-founder and managing director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “It can indicate that the public is starting to be aware of an important issue.”

That awareness has exploded recently. Platforms like Twitter and TikTok play host to daily microplastics commentary, ranging from playful jokes to explanatory guides created by nonprofit groups.

What constitutes a meme can vary also wildly — some traditional forms involve only an image with words across the top and bottom. Others, particularly videos, rely on certain sounds or scenarios. Some are as basic as a sentence or phrase, only slightly modified to fit a situation or topic. On occasion they can spawn an extended joke — “Why I’m Rejecting Diet Culture and Consuming as Many Microplastics as I Want,” reads the headline of an April article from the feminist satire website Reductress.

Microplastics memes have circulated on Twitter, where common formats — like jokes about unionizing, or the Pope holding up a revered object — have easily adhered to the 240-character limit and spread like wildfire.

TikTok has also emerged as a common outlet; one popular video posted in May features a meeting between baby boomers, characterized as lead-filled, and Generation Z, the stomping grounds for microplastics. “What’s wrong sweetie? You’ve [barely] touched your micro plastics” reads the caption, playing on another popular meme.

Social media experts credit campaigns from nonprofit groups, along with prominent news coverage. The website Know Your Meme, which tracks the origins and evolution of various memes, points to late 2016 as the first time microplastics became a notable topic on social media.

But the memes only started appearing widely in 2019, when stories about microplastics went viral, particularly those touching on ingestion.

Scientific studies — and subsequent news stories — detailing microplastics entering human lungs and blood propelled the issue even further into public discourse as recently as this spring (Greenwire, April 8).

“There’s a couple of things to it: The environmental aspect to it, the pollution aspect, the health aspect, [and] ingesting microplastics,” said Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme. “As that becomes more prevalent throughout global consciousness, memes follow. When you see memes about something like microplastics, it’s a sign that this is something people are concerned about.”

‘There has always been this critique’

The journey that took microplastics viral has its roots in a much deeper and more long-running relationship between people and one of the most controversial materials ever produced: plastics.

“There has always been this cultural critique — and the meme is maybe this modern visual critique — of plastics,” said Altman. “Every generation has had their critique. We’ve never really loved and embraced plastics to the extent that people think.”

An historic example of such criticism through art can be found in “The Graduate,” a 1967 film about moving into adulthood. During one scene, an older man advises the protagonist to go into plastics work. In the 1996 book “American Plastic,” the historian Jeffrey Meikle deemed that scene indicative of how many saw plastics as a representation of the artificial nature of U.S. society. Plastics have also been soundly mocked in cartoons from publications like The New Yorker and segments from comics including John Oliver and Trevor Noah.

The industry has pushed back on such criticisms for decades, arguing that its products are key to everything from medical breakthroughs to fighting climate change. But as the internet has grown to be a global village square, backlash has become more commonplace.

Altman pointed to a popular meme format last year showing efforts to dislodge a large container ship trapped in the Suez Canal. In one example, “irresponsible plastic production” is written across the boat; “recycling” is emblazoned on a seemingly minuscule tractor trying to shift the mammoth ship.

“It really showed that dichotomy of individual action versus systemic action,” Altman said.

Microplastics critiques specifically have found unique popularity online. Cohen observed a steady uptick in microplastics memes in recent months, in sync with studies released this spring touching on the consumption of microplastics. Those findings, Cohen said, “seem to be directly tied with new memes that were created around that time. In general, the memes joked about ingesting microplastics as the new normal.”

Which platforms are the most popular for microplastics content, meanwhile, varies and is still evolving.

Caldwell of Know Your Meme pointed to an uptick in content on TikTok, connecting the trend in microplastics-themed videos to similar surges around climate activism.

Alistair Fawcus, the Australia-based influencer who created the video contrasting microplastics in Gen Z members to lead in baby boomers, said the broader topic has played out across diverse platforms from Reddit to Instagram.

“It feels like a big nervous laugh that’s shared across the internet, with the majority knowing good and well all the ramifications of microplastics entering our food and water supply,” Fawcus said.

Writing via email, the content creator observed that social media has increasingly served as a news and information source, especially for younger people.

“Even if it is a 15-second video, it sparks the conversation and prompts [them] to do their own research into the issue,” said Fawcus. “With Gen Z becoming more aware of prioritizing their own research, it provides a great medium for information delivery.”

Taking jokes seriously

Many microplastics memes work from a base assumption that the pollution is unavoidable, particularly in food. They also typically rely on humor and poking fun at the issue. But Cohen said the content is more heartening than not.

“When people start creating memes, it doesn’t mean that society thinks the issue is a joke. Sometimes, it’s one way our culture handles hard and overwhelming topics or identifies a problem in the world that exists,” she said.

Caldwell also said the satirical nature of many memes should not be misinterpreted.

“Memes don’t function just as something that makes light of something. They’re not a sign that people aren’t taking it seriously. It’s the opposite, in fact,” he argued. “People often use humor in memes because it’s fun. People like to be fun online. But humor about serious subjects is something we see a lot.”

Some influencers and content creators also want their jokes to be taken as intended: to elevate major problems.

“It’s such a massive issue that a lot of people seem just to glance over,” said Fawcus, discussing microplastics. “It’s easily one of the biggest threats to the upcoming generations in relation to birth rates, health and food production. It [the TikTok video] was almost meant as a beacon to bring awareness to the issue.”

Groups like the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association have decried microplastics pollution and expressed support for bolstering recycling as a possible solution.

But Altman observed that conversations around plastics have long been driven by industry members, as with other environmental issues.

Major visual campaigns have also emphasized individual action and responsibility, like the “Crying Indian” video released by Keep America Beautiful in the early 1970s to counter pollution, or subsequent anti-littering campaigns in the following decades.

Those efforts, Altman said, painted the public as the problem, rather than plastics as a product.

But the growth of the internet has given everyday consumers access to a global platform and the opportunity to directly engage with industry and government messaging — including expressing disgust and disagreement.

“Social media opened up an alternative way for the public to connect and express their own feelings,” she added.

Whatever microplastics memes mean for public understanding, another reality looming large is the life span of a joke. Caldwell noted that when memes first took off more than a decade ago, they had some staying power. Now they enter an oversaturated internet with a short attention span.

“A viral video [used to] go big and be culturally relevant for months, even the whole year,” said Caldwell. “Now it’s like a day sometimes, a week, then it’s dead. It’s strange how some memes will persevere and some won’t. Part of it is how adaptable they are.”

Microplastics have endured the test of time so far, possibly because they pose an issue that can be memed in any number of ways, and because they continue to appear in headlines.

But Caldwell also agreed with Altman that some of the power behind the content might stem from a desire to engage with a major issue, without inhibitions or corporate messaging.

“Memes give grassroots power to everyday people. They’re able to help a message spread far and wide organically, and they allow individuals to face up against big corporations, without having all those resources at their disposal,” said Caldwell, “because with memes, you don’t need billions of dollars. You just need to be steeped in culture.”

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