Photo: Bojan Fürst

Plastics in the Gut

A search for sand on a rocky shoreline upends colonial science

THE QUIDI VIDI GUT is a tiny natural laboratory. A thin slice of the northern Atlantic Ocean cuts between cliffs to make a marine appendix at the edge of St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Fish harvesters gut their catch in tiny, brightly colored wooden shacks called stages, perched half on land, half in the water around the rim. No matter where you are in town, you can tell fishing season is on when you hear seagulls screaming for guts the fishers toss out. New million-dollar condos and a couple of restaurants rise up on the hill behind the stages, and a footbridge crosses an idyllic stream that feeds freshwater into the Gut. The environment is like a microcosm of the entire island of Newfoundland, with its crashing waves, cliffs, and fishing community all accessible by the city’s public transit. It’s why we test most of our scientific methods there—if it works in the Gut, it’ll work on the island, and you can always get home for a hot lunch.

I study plastics in fish because locals ask me to. When I first came to the island as a newly hired professor and people heard I researched plastic pollution, the first question they asked was whether their fish was safe to eat. During fishing season my students and I will stand on the wharfs and ask fish harvesters for their fish guts. We’ll get a year’s worth of scientific samples in a few afternoons this way, all from fish that have been eaten—we fish for food and scavenge for science.

The plastic pollution in the Gut is archetypically Newfoundland. Standing on a wharf, I see fishing boats tied on with yellow nylon rope, and green polyethylene lobster traps sitting nearby. I’ll find the tiny yellow and green threads that fragment from the fishing gear in the collected cod guts. The idyllic stream at the tip of the Gut feeds from two plasticky sources: the Robin Hood Bay landfill at the top of the hill (a former military site cum landfill where some of the strongest winds in the world blow plastic bags over fences and into scrubby trees) and the Quidi Vidi Lake to the west, where city snowplows dump grimy snow full of rubber “tire dust” and cellulose acetate cigarette butts during our ten-month winter. When I look around the Gut, I sense all these plastics in my mind’s eye. But it won’t be until I bring samples back to the bright white space of the lab that I’ll see the familiar particles under a microscope. Usually they’re too small to see when we’re out on the land, but in the lab, they always show up. They’re dependable that way.

It turns out there is not a single type of plastic pollution, that plastic profiles, like dialects, are unique to their regions. In the Gut, I’m fluent in green threads and yellow paint chips, white microfragments and black tire dust. I know them all at a glance. But when I do research in other locations—New York City, Bermuda, the Great Lakes, even Labrador, the northern part of the province—I’m in unfamiliar territory under the microscope at first, wondering if that red thing is plastic or coral, if that black round bit is coal ash or plastic or something else entirely. I tap the particles with my metal tweezers to see if they sound like plastic, squish them to see if they spring back like plastics. Eventually I’ll put them through a spectrometer, whose lasers identify what type of polymer it is or tell me I’ve made a mistake and that a particle is part of an unfamiliar insect exoskeleton. The Great Lakes are characterized by industrial pellets and sewage plastics. New York City plastics are a hodgepodge of fragments, microbeads, and dime bags (okay, just one dime bag, but it was the most charismatic film plastic I’ve ever met). One of Canada’s foremost plastic pollution scientists, Dr. Chelsea Rochman, doesn’t even use the category of “thread” to identify fragments of fishing gear, while here in Newfoundland and Labrador, a province of fishers, it’s one of our most prevalent forms of microplastic.

The singular term “plastic” is horribly misleading, given the hundreds of polymer types and blends and the many more chemical additives they harbor and leak. Each poses a different threat (or not) in different environments. Large plastics from fishing gear entangle marine mammals, while tiny plastics that make their way into gills and bloodstreams can cause inflammation, but not in all species. Plastics might be a global problem, but they are not universal.

 

Researcher Judyannet Muchiri gathers fish gastrointestinal tracts from two fishermen. 

 

WHEN I FIRST BEGAN to study plastic pollution in the early 2000s, the field was dominated by cold-water cowboys, some with science degrees, many without, who were sailing around the Pacific and showing off jars full of watery plastics. These are the guys you saw on TV or the front pages of newspapers, talking about areas of water the size of Texas, thick with plastics.

Richard Thompson, more scientist than cowboy, gave us the term “microplastics” when he began finding these tiny plastics in research sites he’d been studying in the United Kingdom for decades. Their tiny, fragmented form was their most notable characteristic, unfamiliar next to the plastics we knew and used every day. Sampling methods for them, and the first generation of plastic scientists, had to do two things: find the plastics and show how small they were. You could do that with a jar, a sieve, a photo, or a story.

Once scientists understood how small these plastics were, we found them everywhere. In the Arctic! In salt! In the blood of mussels! In the Mariana goddamned Trench! Ornithologists spoke up: we’ve been finding plastics in bird guts for a while! Oceanographers checked their freezers: plastics in water samples from the 1970s! A cacophony of methods from an array of scientific disciplines resulted in a single message: Look—plastics! Here too! And there! Collectively, we began to see plastic pollution as ubiquitous, worldwide.

That message saturated five to eight years ago, as scientists found microbeads, then microfibers, then nanoplastics: whole new tiny worlds of plastics. It seemed these different-size plastics circulated differently and did different things in niches of environments and bodies. We assumed they caused harm, but did we know that for sure? Where were they coming from? Did sewage treatment catch them? Most of the flash-bang science covered in the media was focused on plastics in remote oceanic locations, but how did those findings measure up to plastics nearer to shore, on shorelines, in freshwater, consumed by animals, and in the atmosphere? More nuanced relationships demanded more refined methods, and these new methods soon proliferated, collecting new kinds of data and provoking new kinds of questions.

As I pondered my sand problem in 2014, the scientific community was starting a loud and consistent call for standardizing the study of plastic pollution. I don’t think a week goes by without a new publication with a title like “The Need for Standardization in Microplastic Analysis.” The argument is that we can’t compare studies if one team looks in seagulls’ stomachs for plastics and finds an average of sixteen per bird and another looks in the seagulls’ entire gastrointestinal tract and finds thirty-eight.

Shoreline studies like the one I was trying to do in the Gut, however, had one of the only standardized scientific methods available. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States and the European Union’s Technical Subgroup on Marine Litter (EU-TSML) had both published standard protocols for sampling shoreline microplastics in 2012 and 2013, respectively, that are nearly identical. It was a bastion of methodological stability in a hot mess of method. And it explains why, six years ago, as I stood on the black, icy shoreline of the Gut for the first time, I fully expected the method to work.

 

Plastic profiles, like dialects, are unique to their regions.

 

I was wearing long johns and a winter hat, and I could see my breath. It was July. I was cranky, struggling to find a place to lay down my tools so I could collect plastics from the shoreline to learn about the pollution in my new home. It was proving difficult.

The island of Newfoundland is called The Rock for a reason. The landscape is characterized by exposed, tough, ancient rock, the result of constant wind and rain off the North Atlantic keeping soil to a minimum. The rocks of the Gut are black, hard, and pointy, and always wet or frozen. They lie in uninterrupted sheets punctuated by boulders and the occasional gravelly bit. Standing over the black rock with my scientific tools—metal scoop, measuring tape, fancy bags—I had a problem. The actual requirement of the standard scientific protocol is to scoop the top three to five centimeters of sand into a vessel. But the Gut is unscoopable. No matter how I introduced my metal scoop to the shoreline, I was not going to get a sample.

So what do I do? Wander around the island until I find some sand? I’d heard of a sandy beach on the north shore, an eighthour drive away. Or develop a new sampling method for rocks that hopefully works the same way as the sand protocol? These were scientific questions. In the end, we decided that the landscape was what mattered, more than the sand, and so we tried two different ways of sampling for microplastics on the rocky shorelines. In both cases we found a similar number of larger plastics but far lower levels of microplastics than other studies. The microplastics on the shorelines were likely falling between rocks or being swept out to sea. It meant the rocky data was not comparable to sandy data.

So now what do I do? If I can’t replicate standardized scientific methods on most of the island’s shorelines, what do I do? Quit my job? Produce results I know are not comparable to other studies? Compare local plastics to other local plastics, but ignore the rest of the world? Doesn’t that mean I’m a crappy scientist?

These, it turns out, are not scientific questions.

 

IN SCIENCE, methodological replicability is one of the highest goods. Not only does it ensure that results are valid, it also allows studies to be comparable. Baseline measures of plastic pollution are designed to be compared to future results to see changes. So when I study cod on the island of Newfoundland and find 2 percent have ingested plastic, that figure provides a baseline measure. I go back every few years to see if the fish population is eating more or fewer plastics, and if my findings change significantly, it signals a change in the environment. If the methods and numbers aren’t comparable in this scenario, they aren’t useful. They’re bad science.

This kind of comparison and replicability requires the robust similitude only achieved through standardization. Standardization means the same kind of work is done the same way, over and over. It makes things fit together, and indeed work together, over distance and difference. But this, of course, never truly works. You’ll know this if you’ve ever had the same recipe turn out differently each time, or if you’ve been unable to fill out a form because you don’t quite fit a category, or if you’ve ever worn a bra.

The premise of scientific standardization is universalism, the belief that certain natural principles, phenomena, forces, and values are true and the same in all times and places. All science is based on the assumption that natural phenomena (and unnatural ones like pollution) are universal. Things might vary a little from place to place, but not in a way that matters; localities, particulars, and context are just details to be sorted, and science is the tool that does the sorting, allowing access to transcendental, universal truths. This is a Western belief. Not all cultures across time believe in totalizing explanations, laws of nature, and the human ability to access them. It’s a hallmark of Western culture, by which I mean the ways of knowing, doing, and being with their origins in ancient Greece, heavily influenced by forms of Christianity and Judaism, gradually (and in some cases not so gradually) assimilating different cultures and localisms as imperial powers.

I’m not saying Western culture is inherently bad. To note that its interlocking social norms, beliefs, ethical values, political systems, epistemologies, technologies, and legal structures are currently dominant is just an observation, one that makes the scientific community’s call for standardization predictable, considering what’s seen as good, right, and truthy in Western culture. But I am saying that it can be hard, in that environment, to imagine other ways of knowing and doing.

 

Western science makes knowledge holders in its own image.

 

The problem with universalism is that it is less a way to access timeless truth than it is an argument positioning a particular worldview as the only worldview. Western science as the way of knowing. Sand as the shoreline sediment. Science historian Lorraine Daston calls Western science a form of “European self-portraiture,” not only because it pushes Western epistemologies into places that have other ways of knowing truths, but also because it makes knowledge holders in its own image. The only valid knower was a Western scientist, rather than locals like fish harvesters or Indigenous inhabitants. Certainly not children. Definitely not fish.

Science was—and still is—a key part of a moral, cultural, and epistemological imperialism, where science and technology are Western gifts brought to peripheries as part of a “civilizing mission.” Even today, access to science camps and workshops for Indigenous, Black, and other “underrepresented” groups is understood as part of a way to lift these groups up, bring us onto the same level, civilize us.

Universal phenomena and the standardization of the scientific method have their roots in Enlightenment-era Europe, which was also a time of mass colonization. Something else was universalized around then as well: the soul. At a certain point in time, it was discovered that everyone had a soul, and that souls operated in identical ways. Saving souls and teaching knowledge properly were the twin civilizing calls of missionaries who came to this province centuries ago, and the purpose of the residential schools that took Inuit, Innu, and Mi’kmaw children from their families. The schools’ main task was to erase Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being. The last residential school closed here in 1980, the year I was born. It was called the Yale school, and it’s in an area of Labrador that, despite its remote location, has particularly high rates of plastic pollution in Indigenous food webs.

 

UNIVERSALISM and its standards, whether scientific, cultural, or religious, validate and valorize some points of view and erase others. Standing on the slippery black rocks of the Gut with my useless scoop, I met a landscape that had been erased from the world.

Together with colleagues from The Rock whose research sites have also defied scooping, we have looked at 361 shoreline studies on plastic pollution, covering 3,173 sample sites. That’s three thousand times a cranky scientist stood on a shoreline looking for a place to set down tools. Were they always standing on sand? Seems unlikely, but that’s what the data says. In one study based in Morocco, where only 20 percent of shorelines are sand, scientists only sampled from that 20 percent of the landscape. A group in Taiwan reported that sandy beaches “occur only in relatively small and isolated areas” of Taiwan, yet these were the beaches in their study. Sandy shorelines make up around 31 percent of the world’s shorelines, but of the 3,173 study sites, 97 percent were either done on sand or followed the standardized protocol (scooping sand) without elaborating. That’s the thing with standards— when something becomes fundamentally normal, you don’t even have to mention it.

And it’s not just sand that has become the norm: only 6 percent of studies included seasons that weren’t summer; only 1 percent reported the presence of ice or snow; only 0.01 percent of studies mentioned the wrack line, that place on the shore where seaweed washes up in a tangle of plastics and gunk. This means we don’t know about shoreline plastics so much as we know about shoreline plastics in places that look and feel like beach resorts.

 

PLASTICS DO SHARE some commonalities. For one, they’re all made through industrial processes that require extraction of stock materials, usually oil and natural gas. Every microplastic any scientist finds, whether in salt or the Mariana Trench, comes from an industrial process. Environmental scientists like me count plastics and monitor their effects after they’re in the environment, so we’re uniquely ill-suited to look up the pipeline to see that, regardless of which kinds, how many, where, and to what effect plastics pollute, they all have the same birthright: access to the environment.

All types of plastic production assume the privilege of disposability, regardless of whether they are disposable plastics, which happen to make up the largest share of plastic production. Plastic producers are aware that plastics last in geological time, which means their fishing gear, cigarette butts, or latex paint will outlast its useful life and very likely the human epoch. The assumption that these immortal plastics will go somewhere after use is what gives me job security as a plastic pollution scientist, because they will always leak out of containment systems and end up in an environment. This is not because waste containment systems are flawed but because no containment system lasts forever or captures everything. Any supervillain will tell you that. The simple passage of time has allowed plastics to become ubiquitous in environments, uneven as their forms, numbers, and modes of harm might be. They are always already legacy pollutants.

The legacy of plastics originates in Western science and industry’s appetite for the universal. Plastics were very much laboratory objects for their early and mainly American and European developers in the early to mid-1900s. With a few exceptions, plastics during this time were not the dependable materials that today keep their form whether their environments are hot, wet, or abrasive. The first plastic raincoats dissolved in the rain. Billiard balls exploded on impact. Scientists strove to find the recipe that led to each plastic acting the same way in all conditions, increasingly designing on the molecular level to find universal building blocks for their polymers.

Scientists weren’t seeking only material universalism. They wanted to do good in the world, and often the whole world. Many saw plastics as a way to truly democratize society in material terms, allowing people with few resources access to a wide array of plastic goods. In 1941, the chemist Victor Yarsley and Edward Couzens, a research manager for B.X. Plastics Ltd., wrote about “a new, brighter cleaner and more beautiful world, an environment not subject to the haphazard distribution of nations’ resources but built to order, the perfect expression of the new spirit of planned scientific control, the Plastics Age.” This total vision was echoed in nylon advertising by DuPont, which spoke of reaching “a thousand untouched shores. To a land of tomorrow where . . . life is easier, happier, and more complete in ways that can’t even be dreamed of today Just as soon as I, [Mr. Chemist], make it come true.”

Chemical frontierism, mastery of the future, and whole-world dreaming found their answer in the intensification of research and development on plastics during the Second World War. Through military money, chemists found ways to stop raincoats from dissolving and nylon from melting. In the late 1930s, before America entered the war, American companies produced 213 million pounds of synthetic resins annually. Only two years later, that figure doubled to 428 million. By the end of the war in 1945, annual production doubled again. This was just the foot of the hockey-stick curve showing the exponential growth of plastic production toward the ubiquitous place of plastics today. Universalism does not just happen—it has to be painstakingly designed, manufactured, and maintained.

 

Fishing gear washed up onto the shoreline of Schott’s Beach, Newfoundland and Labrador. 

 

WHAT WOULD IT LOOK like to move away from practices that make environments into terra nullius, blank slates for scientific desire, regardless of whether those desires are environmentally or industrially benevolent? How can we adapt research so it does not have to resemble laboratory conditions or beach resorts to be valid?

We can start by unhinging universal validity from strictly comparable quantities. Quantitative comparison only gets us so far anyhow. If I use the universal shoreline protocol on some sand, I can say there are more plastics in one sandy place and fewer in another sandy place. Does that indicate worse pollution in the first location? Not necessarily. Science can tell us where plastic has been found, but it can’t express a judgment about whether that plastic ought to be there. An Inuit food web with fewer plastics isn’t necessarily “better” than a landfill pond with a greater number of plastics. Why compare them, when their ecological and even cultural roles are unique and incommensurable? Why compare a shoreline in the Quidi Vidi Gut to one in Taiwan? Why not align sciences to their landscapes, making them accountable to local people, places, and pollution?

There are a few studies where plastic pollution metrics remain attuned to their contexts. In the North Sea, scientists have proposed a threshold of ingested plastics, which they call the EcoQO, or Ecological Quality Objective. The EcoQO holds that if less than 10 percent of northern fulmar sampled have ingested less than 0.1 gram of plastics (about a pinch of salt), then all is well; if they’ve ingested more, intervention is required to reduce plastic pollution in the region. The decision to measure plastic ingestion by weight makes sense here, because the weight of the plastics, rather than their number, would most affect birds’ flight. The ornithologists that created the measure argue against its universal applicability, stating that it only be used for northern fulmar. But the impulse to universalize the measurement is strong, and there are discussions about finding an EcoQO methodology that works for other—or all—bird species.

One of my favorite scientific measures of plastic pollution is the brand audit, precisely because it successfully marries the industrial origins of plastics to their ubiquitous but uneven distribution in the environment. I call it an accountability metric. Popularized by the #breakfreefromplastic movement and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a brand audit records and analyzes brand names on larger shoreline plastics. It wouldn’t work well in the Gut, where most plastics are microplastics and where larger plastics tend to be unbranded fishing gear, but working with the waste management crown corporation in Newfoundland and Labrador, we’ve found that waste from Tim Hortons and McDonald’s dominates our highways. Because the ocean is downhill from everything, we can assume some of that hits the water. In places like Quezon City and Manila Bay in the Philippines, Nestlé, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble are the parent companies of shoreline pollution.

I’ve dealt with my local rock problem by scaling my work over the province. With my students, I recently completed one of the world’s only regional studies of plastic pollution that looks at all the available data on plastic pollution in the province—including data never designed to be compared. From fish harvesters in the 1970s recording whales entangled in their gear to highly precise density measures of microplastics in surface waters, we built a report that paints a picture of ubiquitous but uneven and specific plastics, using questions that matter to people and policymakers specifically in Newfoundland and Labrador. The questions and their answers are framed to match the scale and governance of action here: municipal and provincial policy, the province’s waste management crown corporation, the fishing industry, and nongovernmental environmental organizations.

We found that two adjacent shorelines will collect radically different amounts of plastics. Some areas accrue a lot of fishing gear; others gather none at all, regardless of the amount of fishing. Cigarettes are everywhere but particularly in areas where people work. There’s a lot of litter around wharfs and less offshore. Since the cod fishery collapsed in 1992 and industrial fishing went belly up, whale entanglements in fishing gear are fewer, but birds are ingesting many more microplastics. Of the two municipalities in the province that banned plastic bags, one has one of the lowest rates of plastic bag pollution and the other has one of the highest. There is just as much plastic in remote areas in the subarctic region of the province as in the more populated southern region. When the province sheds plastics, about half travels to another part of the province and the other half flows to Europe, from northern Scotland to southern Spain. These kinds of data let us dig down into the specificity of each place to identify trends and deviations from those trends.

But I’ve learned that if you’re trying to change a system as dominant as Western science, you’re going to replicate some part of it during that change. Because the imperial impulses of Western science gatekeep who constitutes a proper scientist, I choose to do work that is legible as science rather than work as an “amateur,” or worse, a “local.” In 1992, when the cod population and one of the most productive fisheries in the world collapsed, the locals tried to remind fishery scientists that they’d been catching fewer and smaller cod for years, a sure sign of an unhealthy population. But the science said otherwise, and so their knowledge was dismissed, resulting in a collapse of industry and the largest job layoff in Canadian history, one that mostly hurt the locals—the fish harvesters and fish plant workers who had been trying to say all along that something was wrong.

The cod collapse made the division steep and deep, but local knowledge and Western science do not always have to be at odds. So we tried, with the regional study, to do some quantitative comparisons, dragging numbers out of different studies and putting them together in a single spreadsheet. Predictably, the data mostly weren’t comparable, but sometimes they could truly be computed across cases. Information that wasn’t standardized and couldn’t be compared stayed as well. My work exists in this gully of mistrust and blame between two types of knowing. I ensure my research looks and walks like science so other scientists, policymakers, and grantors can recognize it, but I get my research questions from the people who hunt, fish, and eat wild food here. I base my shoreline methods on the dark, frozen rocks of the Gut. As to the purity of science—anyone trying to scoop sheer rock can tell you it doesn’t exist. It is only achieved by locating the small and isolated sandy shorelines of Taiwan and sampling there, and only there, or by ignoring the insights of fish harvesters who spend all day sampling fish.

There are tactics to this type of compromised combination. If you read the regional report, you may be struck by all its pretty graphs. This isn’t because I believe quantification leads to universalizable knowledge, but because those graphs lend credibility to diverse ways of knowing plastics. The graphs aren’t untrue— they’re just local knowledge in scientific drag. Code-switching, where a single conversation alternates between different languages, dialects, and other cultural conventions, has long been a tool to shrug off the totality of empire, to maintain difference and connection to place. Knowledge can be generalized even if it isn’t universal. Even if the exact methods in my regional study of plastics in Newfoundland and Labrador aren’t likely to work anywhere else, the overall methodology—knitting together quantitative data and less comparable information to describe an entire plastic ecology—could almost certainly apply to anyone’s work.

In my broader plastic science community, I advocate not for the standardization of methods but for the transparency of methods. What works where you are? What did the shoreline look like? How did you get the sample from that shoreline into your little baggie? At the Gut, we pick the little plastics off the top of the rocks. When there’s ice and snow, we scoop it like sand. When it’s pouring rain, we leave the slick rocks alone and go home. I write all that down and put it in my method section of published articles. I ask that other scientists do the same so we can figure out what works in our own research sites and what does not. Starting from your place and moving toward research, rather than starting from research and terraforming the environment, lets knowledge breathe and lets the landscape move into scientific spaces on its own terms.

This methodology defends against the tools of universalism, making parachute research difficult, if not impossible. Parachute researchers and other scientific missionaries depend on the standardization of their subjects for their methods to work. It’s an approach that lets empire, in all its forms, travel and grow. But I want science that thinks with locals, that works toward homegrown needs and questions, that minds the rocks. I want a science that works in the Gut. O

This article is the second in a series, guest edited by Rebecca Altman, on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy. The series is generously supported by The Fine Fund. Read “Hand in Glove,” the first article in the series. 

Max Liboiron is an associate professor in geography at Memorial University, where she directs Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, a marine science lab dedicated to anticolonial methods.

Comments

  1. Thank you Max! I much acknowledge and value this perspective. We need much more of it. And your writing has spurred me to think of how to make that possible.

    But, I wonder, and my understanding (based primarily as an American listening to CBC news at the time) was that local economic desires overran that local knowledge and led to the cod collapse. Local people in general wanted to fishing to continue to support their families (understandably) while outside researchers said collapse was coming. How do we we find the sustainable in such a situation? And is that a fair assessment?

  2. Hi Kyran Kunkel,
    I’m sure it did sound like that on the CBC at the time, which also doesn’t do a great job of representing local knowledge. There’s a very different local story: that for centuries and generations, sustenance and small-scale fishing fed families, but in the 1980s the provincial government wanted to modernize the fishery and make some real money by inviting in foreign trawlers–the super ships with massive dragger nets. These nets fished deeper and indiscriminately, scooping up everything including the old female fish that stabilize a population. That’s what led to the collapse–industrial-scale fishing. And yes, locals still wanted–needed–to keep fishing. But they certainly didn’t cause it.
    This is all recounted in a great book by Dean Bavington called “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse.”

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