Understanding Plastics Pollution: Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Forensic Methodology


image: sampling for micro-plastics at Lake Huron, Great Lakes Plastics Pollution Think Tank, summer 2016

This is a SSHRC-funded project, of which I am a co-applicant. Other members are Kelly Jazvac (PI), Kelly Wood (co-applicant), Patricia Corcoran (co-applicant), Heather Davis (collaborator), Max Liboiron (collaborator). Together, we are the Synthetic Collective, a group comprising artists, cultural scholars, sociologists, and scientists.

Our project website is here.


Our objectives for this project are to use interdisciplinary collaboration and a forensic methodology to effectively sample, map, understand, visualize, and create artworks exploring the expansive presence of plastics and microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes Region. Further, we aim to employ our aesthetic and scientific evidence to instigate real change at individual and policy levels.
Research already done on the Great Lakes shows that 80 per cent of garbage in the Great Lakes is plastic (Driedger et. al.). This research is based on measuring post-consumer waste (for example, plastic water bottles or microbeads found in beauty products). However, a significant and unknown percentage of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes comes from pre-consumer plastics, primarily from plastic nurdles (small nuggets of plastic that are melted and reformed to become familiar consumer goods) (Ballent). Initial research undertaken by our group shows extensive accumulation of pre-consumer plastics on the southern shores of Lakes Huron and Erie. We know that nurdles are produced in what is known as the “chemical corridor” in Sarnia, Ontario, near Lake Huron, but there is no causal link between plastics production in Ontario, and pre-consumer plastics accumulating in the Great Lakes. Thus, at this time it is unclear how much pre-consumer plastics waste can be found in each lake (although we already know it is extensive), where the plastics are coming from, what their impact might be on various life forms in the Great Lakes as well as on the landscape of the Great Lakes region, and what forms of intervention might be possible to change practices of plastics disposal in the region. We strongly argue that the best way to tackle the issue of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes is through a methodology that is collaborative from the outset, bringing together artists who can visualize the problem with scientists who can provide evidence. Our project is led by artists, working with numerous stakeholders, among them cultural historians, scientists, policy makers, sociologists, citizens groups, and NGOs.
Key questions are: How can we gather new types of evidence that can be interpreted by artists, historians, and scientists? How can we transfer the results of those studies to groups who might be able to use them? To answer these questions we will: 1. Sample extensively in the Great Lakes to ascertain the amount and distribution of plastics in each; 2. Use a method of forensic analysis to begin to trace where the plastics are coming from; 3. Have interdisciplinary dialogue about current scientific and cultural research ascertaining the potential harm of plastics; 4. Use artistic and cultural studies approaches to visualize our evidence, for example through photography, sculpture, the creation of graphical abstracts, and hybrid forms of scientific-narrative writing; 5. Collaborate with scientists through laboratory and fieldwork with the goal of using interdisciplinary platforms to mobilize scientific findings; 6. Work with policy makers, other academics, NGOs, citizens groups etc. to enact change.

This project will take place from 2017-2022 and will culminate in a major exhibition and publication.

My previous work on this topic can be found here and here.

I am currently running a series of public/community workshops on microfiber pollution.


About Kirsty Robertson

Kirsty Robertson is Associate Professor of contemporary art and Director of museum and curatorial studies at Western University, Canada.
%d bloggers like this: