Western News – Collaboration helps save the planet from plastic pollution
As a child, Patricia Corcoran would examine some interesting little stones that lined the gravel road near her home. “I always wanted to become a geologist,” she recalls.
Today, the Western professor of sedimentary petrology focuses less on pebbles and more on plastics. But she was dismayed to discover that these two materials are often fused into technofossils, a rock-hard legacy of debauched consumerism.
As a leading expert in microplastic pollution research, Corcoran has influenced disparate worlds of science and art with her discovery and depictions of man-made pollution.
Corcoran gave a public lecture this week, as a recipient of the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award, on his team approach to plastic pollution research.
The award honors researchers who bring new interdisciplinary approaches to their work.
“Our idea was to have scientists in art, science, philosophy, etc. just talk (to each other) … get ideas into areas they don’t normally delve into,” said James Fallona, BSc’58, MSc’62, who with his sister Marie-Catherine FallonaBSc’61, MSc’65, support scholarships for researchers and students, and a conference each year in the Faculty of Sciences.
This week’s award was originally announced in 2020, but the pandemic delayed its presentation. This year, the conference happened to take place during Earth Week.
Corcoran’s research has visualized for scientists and the general public a world where the disposable conveniences we leave to our descendants have become so integrated that they sometimes coalesce into a new type of geological entity that she calls the plastiglomerates.
“Everything is hardened into a plastic matrix when melted. It’s a stone. It’s actually something we created,” out of rocks, sediment, seeds, lighters, golf balls and countless plastic fragments, she said.
Artists, in turn, have borrowed these forms to show how insidiously we consume and throw away, and the effects it all has on our planet: the colorful “confetti” of plastic pieces that line our shores, the bird sailor with a rainbow of debris in its belly, the turtle that ate and then choked on a plastic bag, microbeads in the stomach of the fish.
“If you harm the smaller organisms in the food chain, you end up harming the other larger organisms in the food chain as well,” she said.
Such a massive problem calls for cooperative solutions, Corcoran added. Enter the Synthetic Collective – an interdisciplinary collaboration between earth scientists, biologists, chemists, statisticians, environmental scientists, visual artists and cultural workers – working together to sample, map, understand and visualize the complexities of plastic debris and microplastic pollution.
A study at a Sarnia beach looked at the prevalence of plastic pellets, small industrial building blocks for everything from toys to ketchup bottles and vehicle parts. “Once on the beach, you don’t even notice that there are pellets. But when you get down on all fours, you start to see there are thousands of them,” she said.
This study and this research paper led to others, including collective sampling of the shorelines of each of the five Great Lakes.
For two weeks, 14 samplers surveyed 66 beaches in one meter by 10 meter strips at the high water mark.
Together they found more than 13,000 plastic pellets, then cataloged them by size, shape, surface, color and location to get a better idea of the source manufacturer, distribution and time since their inadvertent release.
An area on the north shore of Lake Superior, for example, had a high concentration of pellets that had spilled from a railcar ten years ago. “These pellets could simply recirculate in the lake for a century or more.”
Artists and the media have helped bring research to the public’s attention — to their eyes and to their hearts — in ways scientists couldn’t, she said. “If I wasn’t working with the artists, this work would never have reached the audience it has,” she said.
Some changes are starting to happen, she noted: Canada no longer allows companies to use plastic microbeads, which were once used in hand soap and facial scrubs. Other partnerships have formed with government and industry representatives, for example, to prevent or capture plastics at source.
But collaborations also place a responsibility on the participants, she advised conference attendees: recognize different leadership styles; developing a strategic plan; keep asking questions; and recognize that there is no single expert but rather a collective of expertise.