Citizen Science takes on ocean plastics

Sep 16th, 2014

Janet Harron

Citizen Science takes on ocean plastics

Plastics have been found in every ocean in the world, including the waters off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. However, despite the widespread recognition of this environmental threat, there has been little data on the phenomenon in this province. Until now.

Assistant sociology professor Dr. Max Liboiron aims to make the study of ocean plastics on the ocean and shores of Newfoundland and Labrador a big priority as she begins her career at Memorial. As an activist and artist, Dr. Liboiron has been exploring garbage for a long time.

“It’s a serious issue. I came across ocean plastics when I started my PhD (Redefining Pollution: Plastics in the Wild) at NYU.  It’s currently an intractable problem if we continue business as usual. That why we have to change business as usual. That’s why I study it,” said Dr. Liboiron who to date has only found a single article on plastics in Newfoundland and Labrador (co-authored with researchers from Memorial’s Department of Biology).

“I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. If anyone is working on ocean plastics at all, I would love to talk to them.”

Dr. Liboiron intends to use both social science and citizen science in order to push the methodological boundaries of ocean plastics. Citizen science refers to the actions of those who are not professionally trained in science doing scientific work and being engaged in systemic inquiry to learn things about the natural world. 

“What’s cool about being a social scientist is that we can use oral history and qualitative research to augment ‘pure’ scientific knowledge,” said Dr. Liboiron who has a collection of ocean plastics samples retrieved from beach walks in locations as diverse as Hawaii and Witless Bay beach.

An example of how this sort of augmentation can work?

Dr. Liboiron intends to interview people who work on or by the ocean to capture “the things that might normally fall out of a spread sheet” and what pure science doesn’t pick up. Students in her winter 2015 class on gender and technological change will be encouraged to talk to their parents and grandparents about memories of ocean plastics and how currents distributed them.

And what does gender have to do with it?

Dr. Liboiron explains that plastic in the ocean disproportionally affects women’s endocrine system. These endocrine disruptors have been linked to cancer and fetal development and can affect the entire hormonal system.

She is hoping to have her students work with engineers to design an ocean trawl to harvest ocean plastics that will in turn be placed into open access data points via GPS mapping in various ongoing global ocean plastics initiatives.  She calls the collection of plastic particles “charismatic data” – that which moves you to action and moves the world toward change.

Students will also examine how values and cultural expectations get “baked” into technologies. She explains that people’s concerns always become part of how technology works. For example, large pieces of plastic are ugly and a detriment to tourism but small pieces of plastic are virtually invisible but a danger to fish.  Which one is prioritized is a matter of cultural values.

“We will look at what people care about and then how we operationalize that in what we are building,” said Dr.Liboiron. “Then Newfoundland and Labrador can join the rest of the world in tracking this problem.”

Dr. Liboiron can be reached at