When she was a kid, Patricia Corcoran would examine interesting little stones that lined the gravel road near her home. “I always wanted to become a geologist,” she recalled.
These days, the Western professor of sedimentary petrology is focused less on pebbles and more on plastics. But she was dismayed to discover these two materials are often fused together into technofossils, a rock-hard legacy of profligate consumerism.
As a leading expert on microplastics pollution research, Corcoran has influenced disparate worlds of science and art with her discovery and depictions of human-caused pollution.
Corcoran gave a public lecture this week, as recipient of the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award, about her team approach to plastic pollution research.
The award honours researchers who bring new, interdisciplinary approaches to their work.
“Our idea was to get scientists from art, science, philosophy and so on to simply talk (to each other) … getting ideas in areas that they don’t normally delve into,” said James Fallona, BSc’58, MSc’62, who with his sister Mary Catherine Fallona, BSc’61, MSc’65, support researcher and student awards, and a lecture each year in the Faculty of Science.
This week’s award originally was announced in 2020 but the pandemic delayed its presentation. This year, the lecture aptly took place during Earth Week.
Corcoran’s research has helped visualize for scientists and the broader public a world where the disposable conveniences we leave for our descendants have become so embedded they sometimes meld into a new kind of geological entity she calls plastiglomerates.
“It’s all hardened into a matrix of once-molten plastic. It’s a stone. It’s actually something we’ve created,” from rock, sediment, seeds, lighters, golf balls and countless bits of plastic fragments, she said.
Artists, in turn, have borrowed these forms to show how insidiously we consume and discard, and the effects it all has on our planet: the colourful “confetti” of plastic bits that line our shores, the seabird with a rainbow of debris in its belly, the turtle that ate and then choked on a plastic bag, microbeads in the stomachs of fish.
“If you are harming the smallest organisms on the food chain, then eventually you are also harming the other, larger organisms on the food chain,” she said.
Such a massive problem calls for cooperative solutions, Corcoran added. Enter, the Synthetic Collective – an interdisciplinary collaboration among Earth scientists, biologists, chemists, statisticians, environmental scientists, visual artists and cultural workers – working together to sample, map, understand and visualize the complexities of plastic debris and microplastic pollution.
One study at a beach in Sarnia examined the prevalence of plastic pellets, little industrial building blocks for everything from toys to ketchup bottles and vehicle parts. “Once you get to the beach, you don‘t even notice there are pellets. But when you get down on your hands and knees, you start to see that there are thousands of them,” she said.
That study and research paper led to others, including the collective’s sampling of shorelines on each of the five Great Lakes.
For two weeks, 14 samplers examined 66 beaches in one-metre-by-10-metre swaths at the high-water mark.
Together, they found more than13,000 plastic pellets and then catalogued them by size, shape, surface, colour and location to get a better idea of the source manufacturer, distribution and time since their inadvertent release.
One area on the north shore of Lake Superior, for example, showed a high concentration of pellets that had spilled from a rail car a decade ago. “Those pellets could just be recirculating through the lake for a century or more.”
Artists and the media helped bring the research to public attention – to their eyes and their hearts – in ways scientists could not, she said. “If I weren’t working with the artists, this work would have never reached the audiences it has,” she said.
Some change is starting to take place, she noted: Canada no longer allows companies to use plastic microbeads, which once were used in hand soap and facial scrubs. Other partnerships have formed with government officials and industry, for example, to prevent or capture plastics at the source.
But collaborations also place a responsibility on participants, she advised lecture participants: recognize different leadership styles; develop a strategic plan; continue to ask questions; and acknowledge there is no single expert but, instead, a collective of expertise.