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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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Connection, dialogue, and diversity: My alma mater in mosaic

I recently had the pleasure of creating a mosaic with alumni of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment (FES) during Reunion Weekend (which just happened to also be UW’s 60th anniversary). This mosaic will eventually hang in a newly revamped student space in the Environment buildings.

Does this angle make it look like we’re working hard? (Because we are!)

Showing Dean Jean Andrey how to get her hammer on!

I graduated (twice) from the faculty. First with my Bachelor of Environmental Studies and then with my Masters in Geography. I always knew there was something special about the faculty, something that resonated deeply with me. But the years since I graduated (and that’s a lot of years…) have really helped me clearly see and appreciate what exactly it is that makes this place so unique. And it was this exact reason that both inspired the design of this mosaic and that also made me so proud to be involved in this project.

To me, anything to do with the environment is necessarily about diversity, connections, complexity, and conversations. The Faculty of Environment has always embodied this quality—has always embraced multi-disciplinarity—and this is even more apparent in the innovative ways it has grown and evolved over the years. While I don’t recognize many of the programs that have sprouted up since I graduated, I do recognize that central driving philosophy: If we are to tackle any of the environmental challenges facing us, we need to come at them from all angles, using all the tricks and tools in our toolbox, embracing the complexity and uncertainty of it all.

“Simultaneously a part and a whole” (2017), 24″ x 36″ — rock, architectural glass samples, e-waste, planning model houses, Marcellus shale, graffiti paint layers, marbles, smalti, safety glass, cardboard globe, ceramic, toy airplane

The Big (smalti) Banana – official mascot of the faculty (don’t ask me why because I actually don’t know!)

So what does this mosaic have to do with that? Well, let’s start with the design. There are five lines, each one representing one of the current schools and departments within the faculty, but these lines are connected. And what are they connected with? Those layers of graffiti paint that I so adore—the same material that I used in my mosaic about the challenges of communicating about climate change—paired here with Marcellus shale as a reminder of the importance of open and honest dialogue (always more productive than flame wars on Twitter). Those two materials were my special contributions to this project. The faculty also put out a call for people to contribute special materials that represent FES to them. And they sure came through! They threw lots of interesting materials at me: I got architectural glass samples from when the newest Environment building was constructed, marbles (because Knowledge Integration students apparently build a lot of Rube Goldberg machines!), little wooden planning model houses, a cardboard globe, lots of outdated technology, stones from around the Environment buildings (and even from all the way up in Iqaluit thanks to one alumnus!), a beer stein (because beer?), a toy airplane (there’s an aviation program after all), and so much more. And of course I couldn’t resist making a little smalti banana (the official faculty mascot, which, come to think of it, I have no idea how the Big Banana came to be…).

Graffiti paint and shale having a little tête-à-tête in amongst the other materials

The title of the piece, “Simultaneously a part and a whole,” is a nod to the concept of holons and complexity theory, which came up time after time as I made my way through my studies. Just like a mosaic (see, it was natural that I should gravitate to mosaic!), each piece—whether it’s a species or a lake or a community or an economic sector—is important in and of itself, but is also connected to all the others. You can’t just change one thing and you can never know all the things (and yet you still have to act!) and sometimes the system, which you thought you had a handle on, just up and resets the game board. Gosh the challenge set out in front of us enviro-folk is tough. Thank goodness those smart FES cookies are making sure we’re up to the challenge!

It’s a rock, it’s a plane, it’s…!

Close-up of some of the great materials, including that orange rock (with lichen still attached!) all the way from Iqaluit

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