Tag Archives | microplastics

Making art in the hope that a solution to ocean plastics isn’t our white whale

In November 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on an Indonesian shore. It had 5.9 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. Drinking cups, pop bottles, flip flops, plastic bags, and other assorted bits of plastic. This was not the first nor the most plastic-laden whale to wash up. For example, there was a whale that washed up in Spain with nearly 30 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. And then there were the 13 whales that washed up in Germany with things like a 13-metre long fishing net and a 70-centimetre piece of plastic from a car in their stomachs, among other things. Oh and let’s not forget the whale that died in Thailand with 80 plastic bags (and other plastic items) in its stomach. In comparison, 5.9 kilograms seems like child’s play, which is a crazy thing to say.

In planning the lineup for my upcoming solo show, I had already left a placeholder for a mosaic about ocean plastics. I know, I know, it seems like I only just made a mosaic about how the oceans aren’t the only game in town when it comes to plastics. But in planning a show about the Anthropocene, I couldn’t ignore this issue, especially when you consider the staggering statistics. Like the fact that we’re dumping about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, and this number could double by 2025 if we don’t take action. The ocean currents collect this plastic into five gigantic gyres, the biggest of which—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is three times the size of France and growing. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

So, needless to say, ocean plastics earned their spot in my lineup. I initially thought the piece was going to be inspired by the statistic about the oceans having more plastic than fish by 2050 if current trends continue. But as soon as I read the story about that whale, I knew this was the plastics piece I was meant to create and that it was going to be called “In The Belly Of The Whale”.

Can you find the unintentional fish? Didn’t mean for it to get in there, but I love that it happened.

So I rounded up all the random bits of plastic I could find in the house, plus those I had already squirrelled away in my studio, and got to work. There are utensils, the caps from nut milk cartons, zip ties, contact lens packaging, old skin lotion containers, the plungers from syringes we use to give the dog his meds, strips of plastic bags, and so many other random goodies (baddies?).

“In The Belly Of The Whale” (2019), 24″h x 30″w — plastic and styrofoam

For me, the dangling strips of plastic hanging from the belly of the whale (who is, of course, belly up…sorry to be such a downer), are kind of like a strange new species of seaweed made of microplastics. Now, of course whales don’t eat seaweed, but it speaks to how plastics are worming their way into the food web at all levels. They get in at the top when they get mistaken for food and eaten whole (those plastic bags look an awfully lot like jellyfish). And they insert themselves at the bottom once they’ve been broken down into smaller micro- and nanoplastics and taken up by things like plankton, insects, fish, birds, etc. So organisms at the top of the food web get a sort of double exposure, as they get tricked into eating whole plastic items, plus their normal food now also contains plastics that have been concentrating in predators and prey right up the food chain.

Tentacles!

So the bad news is that we probably can’t filter out the plastics that have already made their way into the ocean, especially the microscopic bits. But we can stem the flow of plastics into the oceans, because the vast majority of the plastic that ends up there comes from sources on land (e.g., it’s not from marine activities, like fishing vessels). I’ve already provided a list of easy actions you can take in my post about freshwater microplastics, but here’s a refresher:

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.
One thing you can do: recycle properly (if you can’t eliminate the plastic in the first place)

I hate that I find these plastic bits so inspiring, artistically speaking. It unsettles me. And that’s probably a good thing, because while I try to be conscientious about what I buy and to limit the plastic I use, it’s still surprising how much of it creeps into my life. Working on this mosaic made entirely of plastic—the majority of which was just from our house—has served as a good reminder to me that I can (and will!) do better.  

Knotted strips of plastic bag in with the plastic bits
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Hey oceans, it’s not all about you: A mosaic to shine the light on freshwater microplastics

Playing second fiddle is tough. Over the years, I’ve experienced it many times at my day job where, as luck would have it, my various files always seem to take a backseat to the Hot Issue of the day. While understandable, it sometimes gets frustrating jumping up and down, waving your arms, trying to convince people to pay attention to an issue that you know is important but that always seems to get overlooked.

I can’t help but think that this is how people who work on freshwater microplastics feel. As I watch governments (mine included), industry, public sector organizations, and citizens band together to tackle ocean plastics, it seems like we’re ignoring a very important part of the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong: ocean plastics are a huge issue, but not to the exclusion of microplastics elsewhere, like our rivers and lakes, our fields and forests, and pretty much every wild place we hold dear (including the “wilderness” of our own bodies).

I consider myself pretty fortunate to work with lots of scientists, some of whom work directly on the issues of both ocean and freshwater microplastics. I get to see the work they’re doing to understand and tackle this problem, and through their social media networks I also get a glimpse into what’s going on in the broader research community. This was how the work of Chelsea Rochman and her lab at the University of Toronto popped up on my radar. An article she co-authored in The Conversation Canada was the direct inspiration for this commission, which was done for a client in Ottawa who is engaged in environmental work. (We’re safely into 2019, which means I can finally share this piece with you, as it was commissioned as a Christmas gift.)

“Beyond Oceans” (2018), 10″h x 12″w — stained glass, smalti, plastic cutlery, shale, limestone, eramosa marble, mudstone

To bring you up to speed on microplastics: they’re bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long (think of a sesame seed or smaller). They come from a bunch of different sources, like the breakdown of larger plastics, microbeads in cosmetics, and even synthetic fibres in our clothing. And once they’re in the environment, it’s bad news. Wildlife—from bugs right up to mammals—can mistake them for food. The plastics fill their bellies, leaving no room for food. Sometimes they leach chemicals. And they can work their way up through the food web too, hopping between ecosystems and species, right onto our plates.

This mosaic, with its ribbon of “microplastics” (that plastic cutlery again!) weaving its way through a section of the Ottawa River, is quite simply me doing my bit to wave my arms and shout “Hey! Microplastics aren’t just an oceans issue!” It’s not that the oceans aren’t important, it’s just that microplastics are probably closer to home than you think (for us non-coastal dwellers) and our rivers and lakes—and forests and fields and mountains and tundra—deserve attention too.

Close-up of the microplastics

Bonus points: If you want to take action, it’s actually not that hard. First, work on phasing out those disposable plastics from your life.

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.

Second, when you see plastic litter, pick it up! (Plogging, anyone?) Then it doesn’t have a chance to degrade and eventually become dinner (or get wrapped around some poor unsuspecting animal).

Not hard, right? Get to it!

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