Sustainability

Newsletter: Plastic pollution is a social justice issue

Alia Dharssi February 26, 2018

As I’ve gotten deeper into my investigation on plastic pollution, the numbers have been overwhelming — 8 million tonnes of plastic leaking into the ocean every year, 11.1 billion plastic pieces suffocating coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050… There’s no shortage of alarming plastic statistics.

What comes up less often is how these numbers come about and what that means for people affected at a local level. That’s why I was excited to learn about the Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a self-described “feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution,” at Memorial University of Newfoundland. It researches plastic pollution with social justice in mind.

The lab’s approach is all about accessibility and equity, which has led them to produce devices such as BabyLegs, a contraption made from baby’s tights and plastic bottles that citizen scientists can use as a trawl to gather samples of microplastics from the ocean’s surface. At a cost of about $12, BabyLegs is a fraction of the price of the $3,500 USD Manta Trawl, which scientists typically use to do the same thing. You can even make one in your kitchen.

BabyLegs collecting samples in Holyrood, N.L., in November 2016.

Plastic pollution “is definitely one of those cases of a disproportionate burden of the world’s pollution onto certain groups,” says Jessica Melvin, a researcher at CLEAR who’s studying plastic ingestion in cod consumed by communities in Newfoundland. Indigenous people, as well as people from low-income and rural communities who depend on wild seafood for their diet, face greater risks from oceans plastics, which can be a million times more concentrated with chemicals than surrounding water. But the pollution in their food chain often comes from the world.

Max Liboiron, director of CLEAR (left) and Jessica Melvin collect cod guts in St. Phillip’s, N.L., in 2016.

To get at the inequities, Jessica and other researchers at CLEAR hold consultations with the communities impacted by their work, and gather fish guts from fish that people are going to eat, rather than directly gathering samples from the ocean. “We sample freezers, essentially,” says Max Liboiron, director of CLEAR. “Sampling the ocean means that you can’t say things about the food webs and people eating it.”

Learning about CLEAR’s focus on equity served as an important reminder for me as a journalist. Even as plastic pollution threatens the whole world, it’s critical to ask questions about how the same issue is affecting different people differently, and to think about how the answer to that question applies to my work.

With that in mind, I’d love your thoughts. What questions do you have? What inequities should I examine in my work? Whose environmental stories is the media missing? Please send me an emailtweet or Facebook message, or share your responses on social media using the hashtag #SustainableDiscourse. Finally, if you know someone who’s interested in sustainability, please forward my newsletter and ask them to subscribe.[fullbreak]

What do you want to know about Canada and sustainable development?

John McArthur.

I’m interviewing John McArthur, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who’s studying Canada’s progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, via Facebook Live on March 1 at 1:30 p.m. ET / 10:30 a.m. PT. According to John’s analysis, Canada needs a breakthrough to hit goals on topics ranging from gender equality to poverty and endangered animals.

What goals are you concerned about? What questions would you like me to ask him? Email me or post them on social media with the hashtag #SustainableDiscourse. Then tune in on Thursday by visiting Discourse Media‘s Facebook page.