Disney and plastic materiality 

The Walt Disney Company (Disney) and plastic are ubiquitous. While the former demands our attention the success of the other is demonstrated in the fact that it has become so common that it is often ignored.   

Disney and plastic both experienced incredible growth in popularity in the post WWII economic boom. Both are often labelled as fake. Disney has been described as presenting a ‘Disneyfied’ aesthetic, an inauthentic version of history, and exemplifying the principles of consumer society (Bryman 2004). While the narrative on plastic suggests that it is a cheap version of the ‘real’ thing, often imitating natural products. At one-point plastic was considered the more environmentally friendly alternative to some of the natural products that had been commonly used and overexploited, such as tortoise shell, ivory, and fur (Gabrys et al. 2013). Now plastic has become the enemy.   

Both Disney and plastic originated in the United States of America and have spread around the world. Disney has theme parks in five countries but the merchandise products and entertainment services it produces span the globe. Disney is one of the world’s most recognised brands. As with most brands, it would struggle to deliver many of its products without the use of plastic.   

Plastic is instrumental in set design, on screen and in the theme parks, it is in the equipment used for filming, the computers and electrical wires used to convey images around the world, it is in the packaging and the merchandise it produces, contains the food, and drink it serves and the toiletries offered to guests in its resorts. Plastic components undoubtedly exist in every operational aspect of Disney. Without the rise of plastic alongside it in the mid to late 1900s there is every chance that Disney would not be the company it is today.   

In the modern world, in which we recognise the significant harmful effects that plastic can have on human and non-human life, the extent of plastic pollution in waterways and on land, and the polluting processes that contribute to making plastic, the carbon emissions and oil extraction, how do we separate ourselves from a product that has become engrained in the very essence of our lives? And more specifically for my research, what can Disney do to reduce its reliance on virgin plastics. I refer specifically to virgin plastics because the use of recycled plastics could reduce the amount of plastic that becomes a waste problem. It is not purely the plastic product that is the issue. The accepted disposability and waste practices associated with these items have long lasting effects.  

One of the problems with plastic bottles, for example, is that the economic system in which it plays a pivotal role is based on its disposability (Hawkins 2013). As a result, there has been little investment in recovery and recycling options. We have a product that has been designed to be durable, to withstand heat, cold and liquid, and as such it is virtually indestructible, but its life span is intended to be short.

Current recycling practices do not provide a solution for our plastic problem, too much of what is sent for recycling ends up in other waste streams. If we could increase the demand for recycled plastic, then the proportion of plastic recycled could be increased and the production of virgin plastic and the amount of plastic waste could be reduced. 

It is not feasible to eliminate all plastics. However, there are areas in which we can readily reduce or eliminate plastic use and use alternative products. The alternatives do not come without their own costs, but they warrant investigation. Popular approaches include refusing plastic bags and taking your own reusable shopping bags, ditching single use cutlery, or opting for biodegradable options, and not buying water in bottles but taking a reusable water bottle with you when you go out. But the solution is rarely straightforward.

The product life cycle assessment, from cradle to grave, for the alternative reusable items needs to consider the production costs and processes and how often that item will be reused before it is disposed. Sometimes what appears to be a better alternative to plastic poses its own set of challenges, just as the creation of plastic solved some problems and created others. Stefanini et al. (2021) showed that the life cycle assessment of a recycled plastic bottle has a lower environmental footprint than virgin plastic or glass alternatives.   

The waste problem is not just about the products, or the processes used to create them, it is the level of consumption in general. Whether it is plastic or any other product, it could be food or fashion, the amount of waste ‘generated’ by modern civilizations is astounding. To generate is to create, but in generating waste we are most often terminating a product, with no future creative use proposed.   

To create something new out of plastic waste would be to extend its life and usefulness. Without an alternative purpose plastic waste can significantly impact on human and non-human health and exacerbates social equity issues. In matters of waste there is a strong divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The locales of the ‘have nots’ tend to become the dumping ground for what the ‘haves’ do not want anymore.   

In considering the environmental and equity issues posed by plastic waste, generated from within Disney theme parks, it is necessary to acknowledge some of the claims made about Disney’s environmental impact (Budd and Kirsch 2005) and social equity. Purchasing a ticket to a Disney theme park or any of its merchandise requires an investment of funds that is not achievable for everyone. Disney has been accused of a homogenised depiction of race, ethnicity, sexuality, accessibility, and gender (Wasko 2001).   

From a middle-class, white, Australian, heterosexual, able-bodied, female perspective, I think that Disney has significantly improved the heterogeneity of its product range over the last five years. This change may have come about through multiple means, with various factors influencing behaviour at different levels. An increasingly diverse Disney audience expects to see themselves represented and the entertainment industry is responding to that. In 2020 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced representation and inclusion standards for on-screen and off-screen roles for a film to be eligible for nomination in the Oscars Best Picture category.   

International packaging standards and consumer pressure could similarly lead to a reduction in plastic waste generated by Disney, but it is not only external factors that need to change. Disney is an assemblage of human and non-human components, it has a Board, an Executive, Cast and Guests, products, equipment, infrastructure, rides, attractions, transport, and systems and practices that all contribute to make it the company it is today. Disney is concurrently part of the assemblage that is the entertainment, travel, tourism, and consumer industries, operating within multiple political, industrial, and geographic boundaries. Destabilisation in any of these existing assemblages is required to establish a new ordering in which plastic waste is no longer an accepted norm.   

Disney portrays a strong social and environmental conscience in its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report and in the messaging at attractions in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) theme parks. It is important that its actions match the rhetoric. According to the CSR report Disney intends to eliminate plastic straws and transition to refillable in room amenities, as well as achieve zero waste to landfill from its wholly owned and operated parks and resorts by 2030.   

There is considerable potential for Disney to use its international profile and capacity for storytelling to change the way people think about plastic and plastic waste. As it is operating within a capitalist culture it is unlikely that Disney will discourage purchase of any of its products to reduce plastic consumption or waste. There is potential for Disney to eliminate single-use plastics, substitute recycled plastics in place of virgin plastics, in merchandise and furnishings, and encourage suppliers, like Coca-Cola, to use recycled plastic containers or provide drink re-fill stations. 

Disney may be able to encourage guests to use reusable cups and bags by making it the norm. It can make these items available for purchase within the parks, provide cost incentives to reuse cups, and limit the alternatives. Simply informing people of the benefits of reducing waste does not result in behaviour change. Demonstrating that the desired behaviour is performed by others within the social group in which guests identify and providing tracking tools has been shown to result in behaviour change (Patrick 2019).   

By investigating components of the life cycle of plastic products and the decision-making framework that results in the production, provision, and disposal of plastic products in a Disney theme park, it may be possible to identify what changes can be made to reduce plastic waste in this context. Multiple qualitative methods will be applied to this research. I am seeking support from Disney to enable an approach that includes a discourse analysis of policy documents and public messaging, interviews with executive staff and cast working in the theme parks, and an exploration of the journey of select plastic products as they enter in to, travel around, and exit a theme park.   

References and reading list    

Bryman, A. (2004) The Disneyization of Society, SAGE Publications Ltd, London.  

Budd, M. and Kirsch M.H. (eds.) (2005) Rethinking Disney: Private control, public dimensions, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown.   

Gabrys, J., Hawkins, G. and Michael, M. (eds.) (2013) Accumulations: The material politics of plastic. Routledge, Oxon.  

Hawkins, G. (2013) “Made to be wasted: PET and topologies of disposability” in Gabrys, J., Hawkins, G. and Michael, M. (eds.) Accumulations: The material politics of plastic (pp 49-67), Routledge, Oxon.   

Patrick, K.M. (2019) How to Save the World. Hello World Labs, San Francisco.   

Stefanini, R., Borghesi, G., Ronzano, A. (2021) ‘Plastic or glass: a new environmental assessment with a marine litter indicator for the comparison of pasteurized milk bottles’, International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 26: 767–784.  

Wasko, J. (2001) “Challenging Disney Myths”, Journal of Communication Inquiry, 25 (3): 237-257. 

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