So much plastic is being made that “recycling has no impact”

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A Canadian scientist wants us to rethink our approach to plastic and challenge the colonial system that produces it.

Recycling has been called a Band-Aid solution, but Dr. Max Liboiron, director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, had a far more poetic description when she said, “Recycling is like a Band-Aid on gangrene.”

Liboiron, who studies microplastics in waterways and food webs, is the subject of a 13-minute film called ‘Guts,’ created by Taylor Hess and Noah Hutton and published by the Atlantic (embedded below). She runs a laboratory that identifies itself as feminist and anti-colonial, which may sound odd in a scientific setting. Liboiron explains in the film:

“Every time you decide what question to ask or not ask others, which counting style you use, which statistics you use, how you frame things, where you publish them, who you work with, where you get funding from… all of that is political. Reproducing the status quo is deeply political because the status quo is crappy.”

The lab is concerned with preserving certain Indigenous traditions, such as smudging and praying over the disposal of dissected fish intestines following research. It implements protocols such as not wearing earbuds while working on a carcass, as this shows disrespect and lack of connection to the animal.

Liboiron is also committed to promoting citizen science. She has built two devices that trawl for microplastics, constructed from everyday materials. One costs $12, the other $500. These stand in contrast to the standard collection device, which costs $3,500. This makes it impossibly expensive for the average person to sample their own water, which Liboiron believes everyone has the right to do.

She doesn’t mince her words when it comes to recycling and its lack of efficacy:

“The only real mode of attack is to deal with the heavy decrease in the production of plastics, as opposed to dealing with them after they’ve already been created. Your consumer behaviours do not matter, not on the scale of the problem. On the scale of personal ethics, yes. Recycling has skyrocketed [with] no impact on the scale of plastic production whatsoever. Really it’s the cessation of production that will make the big-scale changes.”

As someone who advocates for personal plastic reduction, there’s a lot to take away from this statement. To the naysayers who argue there’s no point trying, the personal ethics response is powerful: We have to do these things so that we feel we are making a difference and to position ourselves to be able to challenge authority and the status quo without being a hypocrite. Does it actually help? Probably not much, if we’re being honest, but it can galvanize the broader societal change required to spur political decisions that can turn off the plastic tap eventually.

Liboiron views single-use plastic as a function of colonialism, the product of a system of domination that assumes access to land, both in terms of resource extraction and a product’s eventual disposal. She wrote in an article for Teen Vogue‘s Plastic Planet series,

“[The plastics industry] assumes that household waste will be picked up and taken to landfills or recycling plants that allow plastic disposables to go ‘away.’ Without this infrastructure and access to land, Indigenous land, there is no disposability.”

Usually this land belongs to developing nations or remote communities, which are then criticized by wealthier ones for mismanaging their waste, despite much of it being shipped there from those wealthier countries. Suggestions such as building more incinerators are made, despite the harmful environmental impact these solutions would have.

It’s clear that recycling isn’t going to solve this plastic crisis, and rethinking the system that produces it is really our only choice. Scientists like Liboiron force us to think outside the box, and it’s refreshing.

A Canadian scientist wants us to rethink our approach to plastic and challenge the colonial system that produces it.

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