Nfld. & Labrador·Audio

Atlantic Voice: Promiscuous plastics

Prof. Max Liboiron says ocean plastics are a health risk, not because it's harmful to eat plastic, but due to the toxic chemicals that hitchhike rides on the particles.

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger

Looking for ocean plastics in a sieve. (Angela Antle/CBC)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the discussion by joining our Facebook group.

Recycling and banning plastic straws and bags will not put a dent in the problem of plastics entering the food web, says ocean plastics researcher and professor Max Liboiron.

A scientist, artist and the founder of Memorial University's Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, Liboiron describes her lab as a feminist, anti-colonial, marine science lab that specializes in community-based and citizen science monitoring of plastic pollution.

Professor Max Liboiron of MUN's CLEAR lab. (Angela Antle/CBC)

In this week's episode of Atlantic Voice, I stand at a sink with Liboiron, gazing into a sieve sprinkled with tiny particles. There are bits of seaweed, sand, bone, mud, algae and tiny fish from the waters off Nain, Labrador.

The CLEAR lab had just returned with samples from Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador where it launched a community science project to monitor plastics in wild food.

Despite what you may think, scientists can't simply peer into a microscope to tell with absolute certainty if a tiny particle is plastic — 90 per cent of the particles are smaller than a grain of rice.

Ocean plastics come in all shapes, sizes and colours. (Angela Antle/CBC)

She first identifies them by sight on the surface of the sieve. Then she pokes them with tweezers and places them in a Petri dish for microscope viewing. She also listens to the sounds made by the particles as they are tapped and finally she wraps them in coffee filters to dry out.

If the particle deflates as it dries, it was probably organic matter. If the particles don't shrivel, the next step is to put them in a spectrometer. But even that cannot tell Liboiron, with 100 per cent certainty, that a particle is plastic.

The problem is once plastics have been in the ocean they pick up a lot of other chemicals and so the spectrometer will say, 'Here's the hot mess you just looked at.'- Max Liboiron

The hitchhiking chemicals are why ingesting plastics (or animals that eat plastics) is a risk to human health. Liboiron uses the example of the spaghetti sauce bonding with the inner walls of your plastic food container.

This is exactly why plastic pellets are used to clean up oil and chemical spills. Everything sticks to plastic, and when it enters the digestive system of a human or an animal, the hot, acidic environment causes the chemicals to leach out into the body.

Liboiron has found toxic chemicals such as benzene, methylmercury, PCBs and phthalates on pieces of plastic from the ocean and from wildlife.

Particles from fishing gear are almost always found in Atlantic samples. (Angela Antle/CBC)

One of the plastics she almost always finds in Atlantic seawater is particles of the blue-green thread from fishing nets. She has found particles of that particular kind of plastic in bird bellies, fish guts and in mud samples.

Liboiron is convinced that solving the plastics pollution problem is not a tweak that consumers can make.

"There's only two times, in the history of the world, that plastic pollution decreased. One was in the energy crisis of the 1970s and one was during our most recent financial crisis and recession. That is the scale that matters to plastics: worldwide political, economic, resource crisis."

If we ban straws which is a technical move, it's not going to solve the problem. If we recycle more, it's a technical move and this is not a technical problem.-Max Liboiron

Liboiron suggests working to ban plastic at its source, calling for bans on plastic packaging and finding ways to make trawl nets that don't break down.

"If we ban straws, which is a technical move, it's not going to solve the problem. If we recycle more, it's a technical move, and this is not a technical problem."

Listen to Atlantlic Voice's interview with Max Liboiron here.


Angela Antle produces and hosts CBC Radio's long form journalism program Atlantic Voice as well as TV documentaries for the Absolutely Newfoundland and Labrador series.

Atlantic Voice