There’s an adage is discard studies that although we throw things “away,” there really is no such place. The ocean has been a convenient ”away” for centuries, the idea being that the vast quantities of water can dilute anything, and its status as a last frontier makes it “ideal” for nuclear waste deposits and other waste. The ocean is also downhill from everything, making it a repository for all things plastic and anything else long-lived enough to make the journey to the sea.
In late May, a group of scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute published a report about deep sea dumping captured by remotely operated vehicles off the west coast of the US over two decades. The article is open access and available here for download. They catalogue the types of debris, its distribution, and the amount of flora and fauna that has colonized the waste (about 37%, in case you’re curious). The report also includes some beautiful photographs, and they, along with a few new ones, have been republished in a recent edition of Wired Magazine.
What makes this report so unique is that there is very little knowledge of about deep ocean waste, despite public and professional interest. Using ROVs is expensive and slow, making large area, comprehensive studies quite rare. This makes the MBARI study fairly unique, and well worth a look.
One the the study makes clear: In the cold, dark, still ocean deep, most waste survives perfectly intact for hundreds if not thousands of years like a vast cryogenic freezer, making the ocean the ultimate trash archive.
For all of us who work on pollution, toxics, and the afterlife of chemicals more broadly, there is a new, open listserv called Toxics in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It’s description: “This group is for academics and practitioners who study bodily and/or environmental toxins, pollution, and the lives of synthetic chemicals using methodologies in the humanities and social sciences. It is an open, moderated list and anyone can join and post.”
Over time, it will be interesting to see what sort of trends, interests and mehtodologies scholars and practitioners in the humanities and social sciences have on a topic that is usually thought to be the domain of science and policy. Perhaps the list will appear as a case study on the Discard Studies blog one day…
An international group of scientists, including the young Chelsea Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne from California, with the support of the veteran marine scientist Richard Thompson from the UK and a host of others from the USA and Japan, has called on policy-makers to classify plastic waste as hazardous waste. Their argument, published in the latest issue of Nature, states that classifying plastic waste as hazardous waste is not only a more accurate description of its toxic activities, but will also allow effective action to be taken against such harms. Note that they are not calling for the end of plastics– though they target PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate as the most hazardous of the hazards–but for a more rigorous infrastructure that comes with a new classification.
According to a hazard-ranking model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous… The monomers making up some plastics, such as polyethylene (used to make carrier bags), are thought to be more benign. Yet these materials can still become toxic by picking up other pollutants. Pesticides and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls are consistently found on plastic waste at harmful concentrations 100 times those found in sediments and 1 million times those occurring in sea water. Many of these are ‘priority pollutants’: chemicals that are regulated by government agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because of their toxicity or persistence in organisms and food webs. [...]
With a change in plastics categorization, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation using government funds. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 would enable the EPA to clear the vast accumulations of plastic that litter the terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats under US jurisdiction.
This call is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first is that it is gutsy and straightforward in its identification of plastic pollution as an unmitigated harm, but it is even more remarkable that this balls-out call has been published in Nature, the world’s most cited interdisciplinary scientific journal, and a mainstay for scientific and scientifically-interested communities.
Does this signal the support by the UK publishers of a definition of plastic pollution based on unmitigated harm? There is an ongoing political rigamarole going on in the United States between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the chemical lobby group called American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and other stakeholders as to whether plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) is really–truly, surely, demonstrably, always–harmful to consumers or not, the call to skip the back and forth and assign hazardous waste status to plastics we know contain or recruit chemicals we already call hazardous is refreshing, simple, yet still a bold step given politics in the lead author’s home countries. My hat is off to you, Rochman, Browne et al.
Secondly, the call to reclassify plastic waste as hazardous is remarkable for its ability to scale up to meet the severity of the problem. As the article indicates, the production of plastics is increasing exponentially. Most waste does not make it to the landfill or recycling center, but escapes into the environment. Our current infrastructure, from recycling to landfilling, is failing to contain plastics and its harms. By reclassifying plastic waste, both production and collection infrastructures change dramatically in ways that the authors say will both reduce the amount of plastics being produced, and better contain those that are.
Finally, the report is one of an increasing number of cases of scientists willingly becoming public experts rather than sequestered specialists. There has always been a small culture that propagates the idea that scientists are ethically responsible for their findings, expressed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists founded by former Manhattan Projectphysicists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in discussions about how science is inherently political such as in Mary O’Brien’s publication of “Being a Scientist Means Taking sides” in The Professional Biologist. Yet, this is still a ballsy feat in the United States with its strong prejudice against scientists “speaking out of turn.” Scientists are popularly thought to be the tools of policy in a well run technocracy, not the source of calls to action and creativity in the policy realm. The idea is that impassioned scientists lose objectivity and the ability to do good scientist. But many scientists might argue that their research creates these politics. Looking at shore after shore covered in plastics, and bird after bird with plastics in its belly, conducting study after study that shows the toxicity of plastics and their chemicals, even while you are wearing, sitting on, and eating from plastics, what is a scientist to do? Ethically, as experts and scientists, they are bound to publicize their knowledge, contributing to the public sphere and what some have called “technical democracy.” While Robert Oppenheimer states the role of science, scientists, and open inquiry in a democracy in dramatic terms characteristic of his time, and of his rigorous work in science and ethics following his work on the Manhattan Project:
There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer” in Life, Vol. 7, No. 9, International Edition (24 October 1949), p.58
Friday, November 16 from 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. CST for a FREE webinar focused on plastics cycling!
Registration is free and open to all!
Less than 30% of plastics used in bottles and less than 9% of all plastic waste is recycled in the United States. While municipal recycling programs have traditionally focused on bottle recycling, other plastics – including film and rigid plastics – compose the majority of available plastic waste. As communities seek to reduce waste sent to landfills and meet higher diversion targets, there is increased interest in including these additional plastics in recycling programs. Through the presentations and discussion in this webinar, we hope to explore plastics recycling and its future potential from a variety of perspectives.
Samantha MacBride, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at CUNY – Baruch College and author of Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Recycling in the United States. Her current research is on the contested politics of municipal organic waste management in the U.S. and Canada. She focuses on how landfill gas recovery, industrial-scale composting and anaerobic digestion, and conversion technologies are differently understood and advocated for in relation to threats of climate change by social movements, business sectors, and the state.
Also joining us will be Keefe Harrison, consultant at Resource Recycling Systems, where she brings her direct experience in facilitating cross-sector solutions to the increased recovery and recycling of packaging. Formerly, Keefe served as the director of communications for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, the project director for the Southeast Recycling Development Council, and as a local government assistance team member for the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and Outreach. She has worked in the waste reduction and recycling field since 1998 and is an active national speaker and published author on recycling issues.
Tim Smith, Director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, will facilitate.
The Surfrider Foundation’s mission “is the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.”
As it turns out, that means most of their work has to do with discards, waste and pollution. Litter, oil spills, wasting water, plastic trash, and chemical runoff are some of their primary concerns.
As groovy activists, they’ve developed a rich visual vocabulary that uses juxtaposition, animism, and other visual code switching to bring out the more absurd aspects of ocean waste and discards as “matter out of place.”
“Absurdity” derives from the Latin absurdusm meaning “out of tune.” The absurd is irrational, without reason, and is often contrasted with seriousness. The Surfrider Foundation uses absurdity in all seriousness, however, to make a sophisticated point about the bad reasoning that goes into ocean wastes. This includes bad reasoning in infrastructure, as when sewage systems dump directly into waterways, bad reasoning by litterers, and bad reasoning by industry and designers when they make disposables out of a permanent substance like plastic. If dirt, as Mary Douglas insists, is about “harassing one another into good citizenship,” then the tactics employed by the Surfrider Foundation can be described as a moral absurdity, where they “show” that individual, cultural and industrial practices can lead to an violently incongruous order that knocks the ocean “out of tune.”
This has implications for what the Foundation sees as ordered and unordered, natural and unnatural, just and unjust, but I’ll let you see for yourself:
If we are what we throw away, then what we throw away is worth a close look. Join Gelf on Monday, February 20, at 7:30 pm at The Gallery at LPR for Geeky Garbage, a look at that most overlooked aspect of the overlooked—civilization’s waste. We’ll have on hand the New York City sanitation department’s resident anthropologist, an expert on some of the city’s earliest landfills, and a trash artist to talk about what really happens when we throw something in the trash, and how it impacts everyone.
Our speakers will be Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Sanitation Department and a professor at NYU; Howard Warren, an elementary-school science teacher and one of the city’s leading experts on its oldest garbage dumps; and Max Liboiron, trash artist and plastic pollution activist.
The Geeking Out on garbage will be held Monday, February 20, at 7:30 pm (doors open at 7:00 pm) at the Gallery at LPR at 158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. There is no admission charge, though your voluntary contribution will help defray the costs for this and other great Gelf events. Drinks will be available. Please spread the word and bring your friends.
The Gallery at LPR (Official site, map)
158 Bleecker St. (between Sullivan St. and Thompson St.)
New York, NY 10012
Blocks from A/C/E/B/D/F/M/N/R/1/6 trains
Doors open at 7.
Event starts at 7:30.
There is no admission charge.
Attendees must be 21 or older, as per Le Poisson Rouge rules. (Email vjvalk [at] gmail.com if you are under 21 and would like to attend. The farther in advance, the better; no guarantees.)
Trash Talk Lecture: Terrible and Charismatic Waste
Thursday, February 9, 6:00 pm
Sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and the Harvard Museum of Natural History
Geological Lecture Hall (24 Oxford St., Cambridge). The lecture will be followed by a public reception at the Peabody Museum (11 Divinity Ave.).
Aberrant Waste: Ocean Plastics
Wednesday, February 15, 5:30-7:00 pm
Bobst Library, New York University
70 Washington Square South, New York, NY
This illustrated talk will focus on a single sample of ocean plastics taken from the North Pacific Ocean and follow the threads of how it was collected, how samples are used in science and advocacy, their place in the popular imagination, and how an individual specimen can and cannot scale up to illuminate a new global pollution that will characterize the twenty-first century. More details
The speaker is Max Liboiron, ABD, Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University; Regional Co-Director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and co-author of the Discard Studies Blog.
A version of a similar talk is available as a podcast via the Material World Blog’s Occasional Paper Series.
In 1990, a sudden storm knocked twenty-one containers from a cargo vessel into the sea. Five contained 78,932 Nike shoes. The event was kept quiet by both the shipping company and Nike, but when hundreds of shoes began washing up on the shores of Vancouver Island in Canada, eight months later, beachcombers, the media, and scientists took notice. Two such scientists were Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham. Ingraham had developed a computer model of ocean currents for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to track salmon migration. Yet the software, called the Ocean Surface Current Simulator (OSCURS), had only been tested with an intermittent satellite buoy. By obtaining the longitude and latitude of the Nike cargo dump from shipping crews and interviewing beachcombers, many of whom recorded the time and location of their shoe finds, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had enough data to test OSCURS with thousands of data points (shoes). It predicted the circulation patterns of the shoes so well that Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham published the results in EOS, the peer reviewed journal of the American Geophysical Union. Both scientists proudly sported a pair of their data points on their feet for years to come.
Two years later, another shipping container containing plastic bath toys fell into the ocean and the fortuitous experiment was repeated. This time, the extreme longetivity of the plastic toys— they were still turning up on beaches sixteen years later— produced more data and revealed patterns in the world’s gyres that had never been discovered by modern science before (Ebbesmeyer 2009: 53). To support their research, and particularly to locate thousands of plastic toy ducks, turtles and frogs, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham bribed shipping captains, called multinational corporations, used funds and software from the military, spoke to journalists, interviewed beachcombers, befriended fishermen and bought their plastic catches and even founded Alert, an international beachcombers’ newsletter still in circulation today.
In Ebbesmeyer’s scientific autobiography outlining his career in oceanography, Flotsametrics and the Floating World, the shoes and bath toys are never called pollutants, despite the last third of the book’s focus on plastic marine pollution. In the first part of the book, ocean plastics are fortuitous scientific instruments able to reveal hitherto unknown circulation patterns, and in the last part, all plastic is a “catastrophic” form of pollution (205). For beachcombers, the plastic toys are sometimes litter, sometimes toys that get airlifted by the military to the Salvation Army (78) and sometimes collectibles they are “loath to part with” (81). When a fisherman pulled four hockey gloves from his nets and brought them to shore, a NOAA fisheries inspector knew they were probably from a container spill and thus represented valuable data to oceanographers—he confiscated them and brought them to Jim Ingram (91). Ebbesmeyer writes about this multiplicity when he presents in middle schools:
We adults tend to fetishize flotsam curiosities, to make icons or mascots or collectibles out of them and forget the processes that produced them. But kids, who are supposed to be charmed by things like cute little duckies, see right through this. Time and again they tell me, “Gee, Dr. Duck, aren’t they just trash?” (228)
Nike sneakers, bath toys and hockey gloves lost at sea are best described as boundary objects. Boundary objects, a term coined by Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer, allow both diversity and cooperation in a milieu of social worlds. Boundary objects:
are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds. (1989: 393)
Thus, as a boundary object, a plastic duck on the beach can be both a pollutant and not a pollutant so long as it remains a plastic duck legible to beachcombers, scientists, multinational corporations, journalists and environmentalists.
Furthermore, boundary objects can be more than one thing to the same person according to which social world he is occupying at the time. Curtis Ebbesmeyer oscillates between heart-felt descriptions of plastic drifters as wondrous scientific objects and as horrific toxic pollutants. Sometimes the two meanings collide: “sometimes I feel like an albatross myself, choking on so much grim but exquisite data gleaned from the waves” (2009: 212). Sometimes he is overwhelmed:
Even as it confirmed our predictions, however, Junk Beach overwhelmed me. Despite all our prior computer modeling, I gasped at the sheer concentration of plastic detritus; for a flotsamologist, it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose. Dazed and appalled, I forgot to gather samples of the plastic confetti as I’d planned. (2009: 206)
Ebbesmeyer’s existence in multiple social worlds as a scientist, beachcomber, and environmentalist run together. Throughout his autobiography the status of the plastic “floaters” shift from one kind of object to another depending on the chapter they appear in.
The pollutant/toy duck/boundary object might be different for each social group in the network, but they are not so different that the phenomenon of pollution is completely divorced from its object. The network of actors in the duck saga build up a complex notion of pollution even as some its is participants do not see the bath toys and Nike sneakers as pollutants— the “work “done in a this network of actors mirrors the conglomerate form of pollution even when the object of study is not considered a pollutant by any given part of the network forum (multinationals may see it as evidence of an embarrassing spill, beachcombers may see it as a collectable, etc).
Through this work, the pollutant becomes multivalent, well rounded, and multidimensional. When an object is “properly” framed or represented as a pollutant—that is, when it includes all the steps of pollution, from creation to mitigation, then it is never one “thing”, never a “natural” object in the sense of a self-evident matter-of-fact free of interpretation (Shapin 1985). As such, the relationship between pollutant and pollution is also multivalent and multidimensional, not unidirectional and given. This is not to say that pollution is relevant and without a toxic, harmful material basis— remember that boundary objects retain their coherence even as they might mean or be different things— but that pollution and pollutants, especially in the modern, mechanistic, atomized definition of polution, cannot be accounted for by one person or social group, and as such will always already be a conglomerate at any given time.In short, pollutants are, by their nature, boundary objects.
Two environmental research and advocacy centers, 5 Gyres Institute and the Algalita Marine Research Institute, are offering nine places on a 72-foot research yacht for $13,500 to $15,500 per person to view– and research– the ocean debris fields of Japan’s tsunami.
The expedition’s first leg will sail from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands through the area of the North Pacific Gyre commonly referred to as the “Western Garbage Patch” where little research has been conducted on plastic pollution. The trip’s second leg will travel due east from Japan to Hawaii through the gyre, a vast vortex of ocean currents where plastic debris accumulates, to cross the “Japan Tsunami Debris Field.” Of great interest to the researchers is how fast the plastic trash is traveling across the gyre, how quickly or slowly it is decomposing, how rapidly marine life is colonizing on it, and whether it is transporting invasive species.
Algalita and 5 Gyres have been selling crew positions on their voyages for a few years. There is a theory that experiencing environmental ills (or joys) has the ability to deeply affect environmental values. Though there is ample and well-deserved debate over whether disaster tourism creates or reinforces environmental values enough to turn people towards life-long behavior change or leadership, in this case, “tourists” become crew members and part of a scientific team. Not only will participants develop concrete skills in sailing and trawling for debris, but they will become an inextricable part of a system of producing knowledge about international plastic pollution. In other words, participants graduate from “Tourist” to “Expert.” This is one of the more promising sides of what we might call rigorous disaster tourism.
The trip runs from May 1 through July 1, 2012. The voyage is open to anyone 18 years or older, and participants are expected to help crew the ship and work along scientists.
The full call for participation is here.
One of the most popular posts on this blog is Defunct Models of Pollution, which is about plastic’s challenge to conventional pollution control. While many of this blog’s followers are interested in the form and formation of concepts of pollution and the social/material/political creation of discards, the google searches that lead people to the post tend to be about how endocrine disruptors work, what plastic body burdens are, and how to keep plastics out of the ocean. Can I microwave plastic? Can I reuse disposable plastics without getting sick? Are BPA-free plastic bottles safe?
Good questions. The Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution is a presentation and a manual. The presentation discusses how plastic pollutes bodies and the environment, similar to the Defunct post. It covers how to be as healthy as possible as a consumer and parent in our Very Plastic world. Yet because the issue is larger than any individual consumer can tackle, it also discusses the political, scientific, and social changes that need to happen to deal with plastic pollution effectively. The manual outlines best practices of the politics and consumption of plastics. The website includes dates to public presentations of The Guide, a pod cast of the presentation, and the best practices manual.
If other researchers would like to share the concrete, political actions, repercussions, by-products, projects or paths of their discard studies, please let us know. We’d be happy to hear of how you deal with the very real environmental, health, and social justice politics of your studies.