Do we have a better understanding of the plastic pollution problem because the objects are visibly and physically present in our lives? Whereas the ideas of Climate Breakdown is less easy to ‘grasp’ because methane and C02 is impossible to ‘grasp’…
On Thursday I went to see Dr Deborah Maw, Biochemist and Environmental Artist at the Bollington Arts Festival, talk about her experience with Exxpedition that sailed around the British Isles in 2017.
‘Sailing for 19 days aboard 72-foot vessel Sea Dragon, the team sampled the ocean for plastics and pollutants, feeding these results into wider studies examining the impacts of toxics and plastic pollutants on personal and environmental health. Studies have shown that humans have over 700 foreign synthetic chemicals in our bodies, so the team also underwent 'Body Burden' analysis, a UN Environmental Program initiative to assess our personal exposure to known toxic substances, shed light on the science of ecotoxicology and its relationship with disease rates.
Above all, eXXpedition is a mission to inspire hope for a healthier future. ‘
Link to Dr. Deborah Maw’s blog
Dr Maw explained that one of the main objectives of the expedition was to make the ‘unseen, seen’. Exxpedition, Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ and the various campaigns over the last few years on tackling plastic pollution has been a giant success in terms of spreading awareness. We are now familiar with the vocabulary ‘single use’ and images of the colourful plastic detritus scattered across beeches and plastic bags blowing gently in the wind are common to us all. Visual quotes like ‘by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans’ are unforgettable. Indeed, the plastic bottle is like the poster girl for the campaign! People are taking action in their personal lives and increasingly corporations and governments are putting in place objectives to cut down on usage. So, two years after Dr Maw’s journey with Exxpedition I would say that yes the ‘unseen’ is now ‘seen’. As Dr Maw told us, if we all stopped using single use plastics it would significantly cut down on the plastic problem.
How else is the ‘unseen’ plastic problem woven into our lives?
But the ‘unseen’ bit has really made me think about the visibility of other environmental causes. Plastic has been villainised. We are all familiar with it. We’ve held it in our hands. Found them on empty bus seats. Casually dropped them in the bin. Ignored them lying on the curb. Learnt to hate them. And now increasingly (unless your algorithms don’t show it to you), we see the harrowing photographs of them, crawling, squeezing along rivers in developing countries poisoning environments. On mass they resemble a Slush Puppie being sucked through a narrow straw. In early 2018 for the first time I read about how the thousands of microplastics are released from petroleum based fabrics (polyester, poly blends, nylon) when washing. I’d been living single use plastic free lifestyle for about a year and I only bought clothes second hand due to the ethical and environmental problems with fast fashion. Everytime I washed my clothes, second hand or just old, I was flushing thousands of microplastics into the water. This news was alarming considering I thought I was doing well on the no-plastic front! It’s interesting that I’d only been concentrating of plastics that I could see; plastic bottles, packaging etc. These microscopic plastics found in fabrics can’t be ‘seen’ and therefore easy to ignore. The definition of mico-plastic is anything smaller than 5mm. I can ‘see’ 5mm with a naked eye. I’ve seen thousands of photos of beaches with bits of plastic debri of 5mm. But the micro-plastics from my clothes? Nope I can’t see this with my naked eye at all.
And what happens to these as they are flushed out? Dr. Maw explained that they don’t float as you would expect. They sink, joining the sludge at the bottom of the sewer which is then collected and used as manure. Yup, the microplastics are spread on the fields that grow our food. Eww. Bummer. That sounds like bad news to me (another thing that Exxpedition were doing were testing how chemicals are affecting health- see more on their website or documentary. Plastics attract certain chemicals forming toxic bonds. And in our body they are stored in fat). One way you can prevent this, Dr Maw explained, is to use a Guppy bag that stops most of the microplastics from seeping into the water. At the end of the wash they then collect in the seams and you can put in the recycling bin (?) or in the bin. No perfect solution yet, but as one audience member confirmed, there isn’t any plastic in the world that can’t be recycled, only that we don’t have the infrastructure of recycle it currently.
I can’t SEE the link between my dinner and the Mozambique floods
So only when we use the Guppy bag to collect the microplastics can we see them collected in the seams. Which is probably why this area of concern hasn’t taken off as much. If the plastic pollution campaign has really taken off because beaches and plastic filled belly’s it can be easily and emotively documented, is this why people can’t relate so easily to climate change? Yes, we see news reports from around the world of weather, fires, floods, melting ice caps. But somehow, even with a good understanding of science, it is still difficult to relate this back to eating steak for dinner or taking a flight somewhere. The link between my dinner and the Mozambique floods feels tenuous. Imagine I am watching a YouTube video of a bird having its (link) stomach pumped and a chewed up Highland Spring bottle top is thrown up and I’m sat there, drinking from a Highland Spring bottle, well, you know, I’m going to see the part I play in the problem. It’s visible. Let’s just pause on the ‘holding’ part. I can ‘hold’ it in my hand, grasp it. But climate change you can’t. Perhaps physically grasping something helps us grasp the idea better. Just as throwaway plastics have become the villain of plastic pollution, meat and flights are that of climate change. And it’s almost absurd to think that cow’s burping up methane gas is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been chased by cows across a field before, the visual memory of calfs enthusiastically running towards me is burned into my memory. But cows burping? Pah! I’ll believe it when I see it! I have NEVER seen a cow burp. Or maybe I’ve just not noticed it. I guess it would be easy to miss, it’s not like a cartoon cloud of fluorescent green methane would dissipate up into the cartoon blue sky. I’m not a scientist but I believe the Climate Crisis is real even though I can’t ‘see’ the link from me to it with my naked eye. This may explain why the campaign for considering washing clothes differently hasn’t taken off as well as single use. It’s simply difficult for us to comprehend that ominous microplastics lurk inside the fibres of our clothes waiting to be released.
Highland Spring immersive detritus
And all this philosophising about invisibility vs visibility ties very nicely into this weird detritus left over by the Highland Spring advertising campaign in Manchester Piccadilly train station. I saw it on Friday evening. I’m assuming the ‘happy to help’ representatives in branded t-shirts and had gone home for the week and that there had been some sort of immersive technological element to it. But now the highland imitation stood eerily silent among the hustle and bustle of the station tightly guarded by the yellow plastic roadwork barriers. Not a plastic bottle insight. Only the cool highland water running down the screen.