Plastic Smog and Horizontal Smoke Stacks: Representations of Pollution as Knowledge

“A central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the [environmental crises] that are slow moving and long in the making, that are anonymous and that star nobody, that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?”

(Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 2011: 3)

5 Gyres SEA Change expedition approaches New York City. Photo by Max Liboiron.

5 Gyres SEA Change expedition approaches New York City. Photo by Max Liboiron.

There are twenty-one of us in the ship’s main cabin discussing how to describe the past five days. We are part of a diverse citizen science crew with 5 Gyres, a research and education NGO, that have sailed from Bermuda to New York City dragging fine-mesh nets called trawls alongside our vessel to capture ocean plastics. We bring the samples on board, strain them in sieves, sort them into plastics larger than 5 mm (macroplastics) and those that are smaller (microplastics), and then tally them up. Our first one-hour trawl out of Bermuda had 242 microplastics under 5mm and 46 macroplastics over 5mm. Our second had 445 microplastics and 96 macroplastics. Our third had 1019 microplastics and 89 macroplastics. There were plastics in all 36 of the trawls we brought up from the sea.

Now we’re docked in New Jersey the night before we’ll head up the Hudson River for a final day of sampling. When we leave the ship and return to our lives on land, how will we talk about what we’ve found? The crew is made up of a few scientists, but also schoolteachers, surfers, recycling consultants, students, health professionals, and journalists, among others. How can we all send the same message?

We’ve agreed to use the metaphor of plastic smog. It counteracts the incorrect yet popular image of a plastic island invented by the media almost 15 years ago. There is no island. We talk about how one member of our citizen science research crew thought there really was an island of plastic right until she joined us. She has now discovered first hand that what some of us have been researching for years: there are 5.25 trillion plastic fragments, 92% of which are less than 5 mm floating in surface waters (Eriksen et al 2014). We’ve chosen smog because it’s made of tiny particulates that float around unevenly. It’s obviously linked to human health, and we know it affects health unevenly across the population. Eventually, smog settles to the ground, much like microplastics are slowly settling to the bottom of the ocean. Most marine plastics come from land via drainpipes, sewers, rivers, and industrial infrastructure: these are the “horizontal smoke stacks” of our plastic smog.

We agree on the statement:

There is no “island of trash.” It’s worse. It’s a plastic smog. It’s everywhere. We found plastic in every trawl.

Our sewers, storm drains, and rivers are the horizontal smoke stacks polluting our waterways that flow out to the sea.

We hit a snag when someone suggests we add the term “toxic” in front of smog. We know that in the ocean, plastics attract and absorb oily at a concentration of  up to a million times more than the surrounding water (Mato 2001). These chemicals include flame retardants, PCBs, and dioxins, among many others. We know that when animals eat plastics, these chemicals transfer to their bodies (Rochman et al 2013). Yet there are also flame retardants and other endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics before they reach the ocean. This is where we hit the snag. Some of us are comfortable calling plastics toxic in general. Others are not.

“If you call it toxic smog, people will come out swinging,” warns our plastics recycling representative.

“Plastic polymer chains by themselves aren’t toxic, but the small molecules that are added or attracted to them are toxic,” says our chemist. He makes bioplastics.

The first problem, from a chemistry point of view, is that plastics can refer to the polymer chains that make up the backbone of plastics, but not necessarily the the monomers like BPA that are added to plastics. Colloquially, plastics refer to both. Which is “plastic,” properly speaking?  The differentiation between polymers and and chemical monomers is important for chemists and industry, but not general public. Who is our audience? Do we keep the message the same across audiences, or is it important to talk as if there is always an expert audience out there?

The second problem is that these added chemicals are usually endocrine disruptors, and they are changing definitions of harm in toxicology. Rather than acting like foreign trespassers, endocrine disruptors participate in the body’s endocrine, or hormone, system. They don’t destroy cells— instead, they make cellular and genetic processes work in ways that wouldn’t normally work. This makes harm difficult to scientifically detect, though endocrine disruptors have been correlated with infertility, recurrent miscarriages, feminization of male fetuses, early-onset puberty, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and neurological disorders such as early-onset senility in adults and reduced brain development in children.

Our debate is a miniature version of a larger conversation in plastic pollution: how, exactly, does it cause harm, and how do representations by scientists, NGOs, industry representatives and others play a role in interpreting what is “really” happening? After some discussion, we agree that we can all agree that:

The plastic smog is a serious health concern. Plastics carry toxicants into fish and up our food chain. We found plastics in the fish we caught.

A trigger fish caught in our trawls. When we dissected it, it had a piece of plastic inside. Photo by Max Liboiron.

A trigger fish caught in our trawls. When we dissected it, it had a piece of plastic inside. Photo by Max Liboiron.

Our entire trip has been about representations. We pull nets out of what appears to be a pristine, bright blue ocean, and every trawl brings up plastics. Our citizen science protocols let us see tiny plastics that are otherwise invisible. The fish we catch in the trawls have plastic in them once we dissect them—they otherwise look like healthy fish. We have two crew members from National Geographic Latin America that document everything we do in film and photographs. We also have two other filmmakers and a journalist on board. We photograph all of our scientific samples. The samples will be turned into data and then published in scientific papers and reported to the media.

These activities are about making “truthy” representations. Representations are the basis of human knowledge both in terms of how knowledge is made as well as how it is reproduced and circulated. They are the way reality is interpreted and conveyed for others. Our discussions about how to best convey what we’ve been researching have focused on being as clear, charismatic, and accurate as possible. We don’t want to give up accuracy to be more sensational. But we don’t want to make accurate statements that fall flat. Our goal is to do and describe science in a way that launches action that mitigates plastic pollution. How you describe a problem determines what kind of solutions make sense or not.This is why we’ve focused on a smog: “You can’t solve a smog problem with a butterfly net,” says the Director of Research for 5 Gyres, Marcus Erikson. Instead:

Solutions start upstream. We have to stop the problem at its source. Solutions include designing for recovery, waste reduction, phasing out problem plastics, and extended producer responsibility.

If you are not in a position to influence these larger scale systems, you can:

Donate to 5 Gyres: Support the people who do this work full time.

Sign the Microbeads legislation petitions or call congress: tiny plastic beads used in face & body scrubs and toothpaste are washed directly down the drain and into our water systems, where they harm our waterways and the animals that live there.

Get involved in citizen science on marine plastics like the Marine Debris TrackerDo-it-yourself trawls, or the traveling Manta Trawl.

Related posts:

Defunct Models of Pollution: Starring Oceanic Plastics and Body Burdens

How the Ocean Cleanup Array Fundamentally Misunderstands Marine Plastics and Causes Harm

Scientists Call to Classify Plastic Waste as a Hazardous Substance

The Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution

Visually Representing Slow Disasters

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of sociology and technology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research focuses on how harmful, invisible, emerging phenomena such as disasters, toxicants, and marine plastics become manifest in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action.

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