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Marine microplastics problem in N.L.: MUN scientist

Scientist says most of the plastic found off our shores is local

Max Liboiron

MUN scientist Max Liboiron says her research has shown just how much plastic debris there is in the province's marine environment: a lot. (CBC)

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A scientist based at Memorial University says there are far more microplastics in the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador than previously thought, and she's raising the alarm about what that means for both the environment, and human behaviour in the province.

"We've found plastics everywhere we've looked," said Max Liboiron, an assistant professor and the head of MUN's Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR).

That contradicts earlier thoughts on the subject, that the waters surrounding the province were relatively plastic-free — a mindset Liboiron said has been perpetuated by a lack of debris washing up on shore.

But skimming the surface and investigating the innards of fish and seabirds has turned up the proof.

And what's more — a lot of the trash is local.

Plastic bits from ocean

Some of Liboiron's marine microplastics samples, now being studied in university labs. (CBC)

"Most of the plastics in Newfoundland come from Newfoundland," Liboiron told CBC's Here and Now. 

"They're pretty intact when we find them. If you put plastics out in the ocean they shred up pretty fast," she said, adding she's seen a variety of local plastics, from fishing gear to kitchen waste to plastic bags, inside animals' digestive systems.

Push for a plastic bag ban?

Liboiron's research comes as the conversation and controversy over banning plastic bags ramps up. City councillors in both St. John's and Corner Brook have been pushing for an end to the bags, and a similar ban on Fogo Island has reportedly met with success, although a business group in the province has spoken out against any potential ban.

Liboiron supports a ban, saying it's necessary from an environmental perspective.

"It stops the flow of plastics from coming into the ocean, then concentrating on the plastics that are already there. Otherwise its like bailing out a boat before you've plugged the hole," she said, adding even when bags are sent to the landfill, it's easy for them to find their way to open water.

"We're trying to keep plastics from coming into the ocean. Once they're in the ocean there's very little you can do."

Plastic bags at landfill

Plastic bags easily migrate from land to marine environments, says Liboiron, who advpcates to not use them in the first place. (CBC)

The plastic pee test

It can take 10,000 years for plastic to break down, said Liboiron, and that's just an educated guess. 

"You put those plastics in a vibrating jar of uric acid —  the same acid as pee — you vibrate it very very fast under very bright lights, and then you measure the weakening of the bonds. And then by math you extrapolate how weak those bonds would have to get for them to break apart," she said, explaining the methodology behind those estimates.

Max Liboiron

Liboiron says chemicals leaching from plastics into the food chain pose numerous health problems to humans. (CBC)

"[But] most plastics, especially when they're in the ocean, it's cold, it's dark, they're not going to break down, period. So they're going to outlast our species."

Added to that long life is the harmful nature of the chemicals within plastic.

"When an animal eats [plastics], the chemicals go into its tissues, and it accumulates in the animal. But it biomagnifies up the food web, so those chemicals get concentrated the higher up the food web that you are. And humans are pretty near the top," she said.

Liboiron said those same microplastics then go on to cause a number of human health problems, with plastics correlated to rising obesity, decreasing male fertility and developmental issues: all reasons to put down the plastic bag.

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