News Release

REF NO.: 25

SUBJECT: Memorial University takes on ocean plastics with citizen science

DATE: September 22, 2014

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.

Dr. Max Liboiron, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, aims to make the study of the impact of ocean plastics on the ocean and shores of Newfoundland and Labrador a big priority as she begins her career teaching and researching at Memorial. As an activist and artist, Dr. Liboiron has been exploring garbage for a long time.

“It’s a serious issue,” said Dr. Liboiron, who to date has unearthed one article on plastics in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was co-authored by researchers from Memorial’s Department of Biology. “I came across ocean plastics when I started my PhD, titled 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.”

Dr. Liboiron intends to use both social science and citizen science in order to push the methodological boundaries of ocean plastics.

“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.

The citizen science aspect 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. 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 Dr. Liboiron’s upcoming 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.

Dr. Liboiron explains that gender enters the picture due to the fact that the huge volume of plastic present in the planet’s oceans disproportionally affects women’s endocrine systems. These endocrine disruptors have been linked to cancer and fetal development and can affect the entire hormonal system.

Students will also examine how values and cultural expectations get “baked” into technologies. She explains that people’s concerns ultimately become part of how technology functions. For example, large pieces of plastic are considered 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. Then Newfoundland and Labrador can join the rest of the world in tracking this problem.”

Dr. Liboiron encourages anyone working in the area of ocean plastics to contact her at mliboiron@mun.ca.

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