Tag Archives | pollution

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!


Black carbon: When climate change and air pollution collide

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of black carbon, but surely you’re familiar with soot, yes? Well, that’s essentially black carbon. So what does soot / black carbon have to do with climate change? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Where does it come from?

Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal), biofuels (e.g., ethanol), and biomass (e.g., wood—anything from fireplaces to forest fires). In developed countries, the majority of black carbon emissions come from burning diesel fuel (think: cars and other forms of transportation). In developing countries, however, most black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating (picture women crouched over charcoal cookstoves, because in addition to being an environmental issue, this one’s also a gender and health issue).

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

The incomplete combustion of coal, mosaic style

How does it work?

Black carbon contributes to global warming both directly and indirectly. Directly in that its little particles, being black, absorb sunlight in the atmosphere and turn that into heat. And indirectly because when deposited on snow and ice, black carbon reduces their reflectivity, so more heat gets absorbed (rather than reflected back into space), making the snow and ice melt faster. The resulting water, being darker in colour, absorbs even more heat, and on and on it goes (remember, we covered this back when we talked about sea ice decline). This makes black carbon a really important driver of climate change in the Arctic.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Black carbon at work in the Arctic, making things go wonky

Timing is everything

Along with a handful of other substances, black carbon is part of a group of super pollutants that, molecule for molecule, punch above their weight in terms of contributing to climate change. These super pollutants are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The “short-lived” part is important: unlike greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, SLCPs have a much shorter atmospheric lifespan (more in the order of days to weeks). This timescale aspect is key. When we reduce emissions of normal GHGs, there’s quite a lag before we see anything happening in terms of falling atmospheric GHG concentrations; what we’ve already put up there stays around for a looooooong time (essentially forever), so there’s no immediate gratification for the fruits of our mitigation labours. But reducing black carbon and other SLCPs has a much more immediate impact because of their short lifecycle. While it remains imperative that we address GHGs writ large, action on SLCPs can buy us a little bit of time and might help avoid those nightmarish scenarios of unchecked climate change.

But you know what’s also great about dealing with black carbon? It’s a local pollutant (soot’s not super great for your lungs, among other things), so in addition to seeing very tangible, short-term global effects in terms of climate change, you also see immediate local public health benefits in terms of things like asthma and other respiratory conditions (and, as mentioned above, in developing countries there’s also a gender angle). That’s a lot of bang for our mitigation buck!

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Black carbon (Potent but actionable)” (2015), 12″ x 12″ — marble, coal, unglazed porcelain, smalti, sea spines

A no-brainer, but not a silver bullet

Now, on my more cynical days, I am sometimes inclined to think that developed countries find dealing with SLCPs an attractive option because it acts as a bit of a smokescreen (*groan*…sorry, I couldn’t resist) in that a lot of the work can be done outside their borders. They pull together some money for cleaner-burning stoves in developing countries, thereby appearing to be benevolent AND serious about dealing with climate change, but they essentially allow themselves to delay taking ambitious action at home, which would inevitably involve taking a long, hard look at fundamental changes to their fossil fuel-based economies. But like I said, that’s on my cynical days, which, admittedly, are too frequent. At the end of the day, action on black carbon and other SLCPs is a no-brainer, both at home and abroad. We should be doing it—it buys us some time and comes with considerable co-benefits—just as long as it’s not the only thing we do.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling -- detail

Just a parting detail shot…


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