The user can crush these toothpaste tablets with their teeth before they start brushing, which enables a more sustainable product, as there is no plastic required to package the product.

As far as synthetic materials go, plastic could be considered a serious scientific achievement. It is not only lightweight, inexpensive and highly versatile, it is at the same time also strong, durable and corrosion-resistant (Napper & Thompson, 2020). Because of these properties, it has been wildly popular ever since the 1950s. Estimates from 2017 say that 8.3 billion metric tons (Mt) of plastics were produced up until that point, of which 6.3 billion was discarded as waste (Geyer et al., 2017). This is an incredible amount, which can be difficult to grasp without anything to compare it with. To get an idea of how much waste this is, imagine Star Wars creator George Lucas’ net worth ($6.5 billion as of February 2022 (Forbes, 2022) in single-dollar bills. This would take roughly 6,500 ISO standard size pallets full of dollar bills (Ren, 2022). Now imagine that every single dollar bill on those pallets represents a tonne (1000kg) (!) of plastic waste. Now, not only is this an example of the entirely different problem of wealth inequality in the 21st century, but it also shows just how much we rely on plastic in the products we use every day.

cumulative production of plastic since 1950

This object from the collection, the toothpaste tablets, represents two sides to this problem. Firstly, it represents a new category of products that offer plastic-free alternatives to everyday products. The major selling point of these products is that it is a sustainable alternative, relying on what will be the second side to this problem: the neoliberalist belief that problems should be solved by relying on people to act in their self-interest instead of government regulation. This economic philosophy has failed, and continues to fail, to address problems such as plastic pollution.


But first, we will look at the object, and how it fits within the theme of environmentalism. As was discussed in the first section, there is a big problem with our dependency on plastic in everyday products. Alternatives like toothpaste tablets present themselves as a sustainable substitute for those products. Because of traditional toothpaste’s viscous liquid state of matter, it is difficult to package without using plastic. It needs to be a material that is strong enough to prevent leaks, but light enough to be squeezed, as well as ensuring that it does not stick to the inside of the packaging. This means that most toothpaste packaging contains multiple types of plastic, making it very difficult to recycle (Suppipat et al., 2022). This hurts the environment in two ways, polluting both on land and in waters. Imagery of the latter is generally well known through widespread videos of sea animals struggling with plastic litter in their habitat. Research shows that it does not only hurt the environment with this type of entanglements, but also the “toxicological effects via ingestion of plastics, suffocation, starvation, dispersal, and rafting of organisms, provision of new habitats, and introduction of invasive species are significant ecological effects with growing threats to biodiversity and trophic relationships”(Thushari & Senevirathna, 2020, p. 1). This damage to the environment also hurts the people that live in these areas, as this pollution can have socio-economic effects on, for example, tourism and fishery (p.2). But, maybe surprisingly, a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO, 2021) shows that there are more plastics in soil than in the ocean (p.3) and that this pollution can hurt natural ecosystems and pose a threat to food safety (p. 99). One example of how this happens in soil is that microplastic pollution, tiny fragmentations of plastic litter, has led to a decrease of mites and larvae that live beneath the surface and maintain the fertility of the land (Lin et al., 2020, p. 4).

Now, it seems obvious that to limit or even prevent further pollution, the production of new plastics needs to be reduced as much as possible. But corporations who depend on these plastics to keep their profit margins high will not just let that happen. The American Chemistry Council, which includes companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell, spent $16.6 million on lobbying in the United States in 2021 alone (Hodgson, 2022). This lobbying takes on several forms. Take the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) as a practical example, this industry-backed organisation lobbies against bans on plastic bags. They do this by, for example, funding favourable research, backing other organisations that promote the narrative that bans would hurt consumers, as well as investing hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing campaigns (Root, 2019).

environmental failure of neoliberalism

And this is what leads into the second narrative that this object represents: the environmental failure of neoliberalism in the 21st century. Before getting into the details, let us define what exactly neoliberalism is. Navarro (2007) explains it as a theory that is built around three pillars: reduced state interventionism in economic and social activities, deregulated labour and financial markets, and full mobility of labour, capital, goods, and services through eliminating borders and barriers (p. 48). Some of the most popular proponents of these ideas were Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States, who were both in power during the 1980s. While the period after World War II was a time where ‘big government’ saw a significant increase of the welfare state, increasing coverage and scope of social benefits (Castles, 2006), the early 1980s states marked the beginning of policy shifts around the world to more neoliberalist values: reducing the states’ involvement and move towards a more free market-based model (Peters, 2012).

Applied to our problem of plastic pollution, neoliberalism proposes that the state should let corporations that produce products with plastic compete in the free market with minimal regulation, where consumers will pick the best option and eliminate alternatives that do not meet the market’s demands.

An example ridiculing the emphasis on individual responsibilities by large corporations

This seems like a solution in theory, as research has shown that people do try to be ‘good’ when they make their purchases, but this is often made more difficult by the issues of cost, accessibility, and product quality (Adams & Raisborough, 2010, p. 270). Companies also know this, as greenwashing has become more popular. This involves a company marketing themselves or their product as ‘sustainable’ despite still participating in polluting business practices (Watson, 2017, p. 38). So could these plastic-free alternatives be a solution? In short, the answer is no. People do want to buy products that are more environmentally friendly, which is shown by the rise of plastic-free alternatives and the performative greenwashing by companies, but as long as corporations keep producing new plastics on such a massive scale, does it actually do anything?


Name: Toothpaste tablets

3D Model

Creator: Bastiaan Meyers

Date:  27-01-2022

Place: Maastricht

Themes: Environmentalism, Wellness

Captured with Canon EOS250D, tripod, lightbox, lazy susan

Processed with Agisoft Metashape Professional Software run on Windows 10 (64-bit)


Physical Object

Size:  6,8 x 0,9 x 14,6 cm

Weight: 59 g

Material: Paper


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