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Outside/In: The Influence Of The Sand Beach On Plastic Pollution Research

Max Liboiron

While sand beaches comprise just over 30% of the world’s ice-free shorelines, the collective idea of the sand beach can sometimes cast a much bigger shadow.

That image can even have an influence on other fields of science - like plastic pollution.

The scale of plastic pollution in the ocean is immense. Plastic can choke or entangle animals;  break down to microscopic sizes and release pollutants as it degrades; and can also eaten by all manner of marine life, including fish, who can then be caught and eaten by humans. We don’t really know how all this plastic is changing the ocean, and impacting our bodies.

“Most people know at this point that there’s plastics in pretty much every environment you look in, from Mars to the bottom of the ocean, but it’s really uneven in all those places,” said Dr. Max Liboiron, an associate professor of geography at Memorial University at Newfoundland. “My job is to look at the specific plastic profile in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Canadian province I work in. It’s a big fishing industry, there’s a lot of sustenance food, hunting and fishing, and the plastic is very unique here, and so is our environment and our shorelines.”

But when Liboiron set out to study plastic pollution in Newfoundland in 2014, they experienced a moment on the coast that, for them, called into question the basic principles of the scientific method. A moment which brought into focus the degree to which science can have a point of view, which Liboiron ended up writing about for Orion Magazine in 2020.

Outside/In producer Justine Paradis spoke with Liboiron about their research, and how the focus on sand beaches can limit our understanding of the world.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

Paradis: Can you tell me about the shores and landscape of Newfoundland and specifically the research site?

Liboiron: Newfoundland and Labrador is a province with two parts, and the island of  Newfoundland is nicknamed “the Rock.” So, our shorelines are rocks, cliffs… there’s occasionally sand that’s gotten swept up from somewhere, but the vast majority are these black, pointy, shiny, frozen rocks. 

I wrote a piece for Orion about [the Gut]. They’re called “tickles” here… like appendixes, little tiny bays that come in. The Gut is a tickle: it’s a little appendix of water that comes right into the edge of town.

Because I can get to it with public transit, and because it’s still a fishing area with water coming in from the Atlantic Ocean, we do our research tests there.

That is one of the first places I went when I got my job here several years ago. I had been trained in the standardized method for looking for small plastics - microplastics - on shorelines… and what you do is you scoop sand and sieve it.

And there was no sand. There wasn't even gravel [in the Gut]. There were boulders and sheer rock and ice. I was like, 'do I have to quit my job? Do I make science that doesn't make sense with other science? What do I do?'

I ended up working with brilliant people, including someone named Jess Melvin. She has gone to different parts of the province and finds the same problem. They did this huge study where they looked at all the different scientific publications about marine plastics on shorelines. That’s 361 studies, well over 3000 research sites. Only 4% of them talked about not-sand, and that’s everything from little gravel to boulders, so coarse sediment, generally.

But the world has way more than 4% not-sand beaches!

So, we were like, 'oh my god, the scientific community doesn't know anything about beaches that don't look like resort beaches. They don’t anything that [doesn’t] look like San Francisco. How is this possible? How is it that we have a global knowledge on plastic pollution without global landscapes?'

Paradis: What does that say about how plastics pollution (science) “sees” the coast?

Liboiron: It's interesting because there's very little standardized in plastic pollution research because it's a brand new field. And whenever a new field kicks off, everyone is what you call a "coldwater cowboy.” People are trying things that work. The one place in our field that is standardized is shoreline plastics because these two government agencies from the EU and the US made them, and this is the sand protocol.

And so, in these papers we're reviewing, people will be like: ‘it was a huge rocky beach and we found the one place with sand,’ or, ‘there was snow, and we dug around it.’ Because there’s no protocol for how to deal with not-sand.

I think scientists have an anxiety, a professional anxiety, where if you can't replicate something, the phantom of it not being valid is very real. And so they'll do these tricky moves… so they can replicate something even if the replicant doesn't represent their environment, because otherwise your science becomes questionable. Can you publish this? Can you compare it? What does it even mean?

There’s this call for standardization, but we're worried it will be standardized to very specific environments [so that] places like Newfound and Labrador and the Arctic, where I work, will be left out of those standards, because we're not the primary imagined landscape in which knowledge takes place.

Paradis: Why do you think the focus was on sand? Why do you think that happened?

Liboiron: So I don’t know why the focus was on sand, but there are several possibilities. One is that… the standardized methodology came from a core group of people. Maybe they lived in a place with sand. Or maybe they lived in a place that had sand and other things, and they were like, oh yeah, sand is easier, because the sand way of doing it is much closer to how other sediment analysis happens in other scientific disciplines: you put things in a sieve and you shake them and they stratify. You can't do that with giant rocks.

And it might have just  been cultural bias for sandy places. Where do you want to research? Would you like to research on a cold cliff, or would you like to research on this beach? Well, for some reason, we keep researching on the beach.

Most research is done in the summer, even in places with more than one season. We have fair weather science.

It’s just nice to do science for twelve hours when it doesn’t suck outside. I mean, I can’t blame people for that. 

Paradis: I’d like to talk a little bit about this principle of standardization because, as I understand it, one of the principles in science is repeatability, so you develop a standard methodology that can be repeated so that the results can be compared to different areas or different time periods.

Liboiron: Bingo.

Paradis: But you question the purpose of standardization and the worldview it suggests. What do you see in this principle? What about standardization do you question?

Liboiron: So, you perfectly described the principle of replicability in science. You do it the same way, so that no matter where or when you do it, [when] you compare with other results, you can tell whether things are changing.

The problem is that that assumes a universality: that the landscape stays the same, and you can actually do the same thing in all the seasons and all the places. And seasons and places don’t actually allow that.

In Orion, I wrote about this idea of a universal landscape or a universal context, where the details might change but essence doesn't. That comes out of Western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks talking about essential property of things, gets a big bump in the Enlightenment with replicability and what we would now call Western science or modern science. It’s still very much with us if we're a Western-trained scientist.

In their article for Orion, Liboiron wrote, “What would it look like to move away from practices that make environments into terra nullius, blank slates for scientific desire, regardless of whether those desires are environmentally or industrially benevolent? How can we adapt research so it does not have to resemble laboratory conditions or beach resorts to be valid?”

Liboiron: There are lots of ways of knowing that don't rely on universalism. But my job does: the science in my job does rely on it.

So we've tried to say, okay: there's a type of monitoring and a type of comparing, and especially with pollution research, you have to compare now to before and now to the future. You have to tell whether pollution is getting worse or not.

But what if you only do that for this province? What if you only do that for the places that matter here, as opposed to the places that matter globally - which, if you think about it, don't exist.  There's no universal "we:" that’s not possible. There’s no single way to be concerned about pollution, or to be harmed by plastics, or to use the ocean, or to be dependent on the ocean.There’s no universal way. So what if we did replicable local science instead?

So that's what we started doing. Because actually we don't have a choice. We can't do universal science here. I have located one sandy beach on this entire island of Newfoundland that is sandy, and it’s a tourist beach. It’s not where people fish, and we care about plastics in our fish, so it’s sort of a stupid beach for me to monitor anyway.

Although, I have, because it was sandy. So I have the data, but we actually haven't processed it because no one needs that data, it turns out. 

Paradis: It's like it changes who the science is for when you approach it differently.

Liboiron: Yeah. I bet I could publish that sandy beach study, but I'd be wasting my time in terms of people who need the research here. This is an ocean-dependent province. We eat out of the ocean. We live on the ocean. So, I need to do better than just publishable replicability.

Justine Paradis is a producer and reporter for NHPR's Creative Production Unit, most oftenOutside/In. Before NHPR, she produced Millennial podcast from Radiotopia, contributed to podcasts including Love + Radio, and reported for WCAI & WGBH from her hometown of Nantucket island.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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