Panel 2: Marine Plastics

What Sticks, What Leaches: Human Health Implications of Plastic Marine Debris

Click Here to View This Presentation

Dawn of the Plastisphere: Problematising Plastic in the Ocean as Emerging Naturecultures

The Ocean as Thingspace: Plastic Pollution and the Changing Narratives of Recurring Things

Comments 8

  1. I’m a journalist with, a global nonprofit news organization, and I have spent that last year with my team researching micro plastics and nano plastics for a large, in depth story to be published soon on various global news platforms. We will be unveiling some startling new findings that should cause for a great deal of concern.

    In our story we talk about the surface area of micro and nano plastics and their ability to be prime surfaces for bacteria and other toxins, as have been widely researched. But, has anyone done a statistical analysis of beach closings due to bacteria, globally, to assess if these plumes are a result of increased micro plastics in the marine environment? If so, could you point me in the direction of that study?

    We also spent time with Richard Thomson, Tamara Galloway, Sherri Mason, Chelsea Rochman and Mark Browne to see what we collectively know about human health impacts. The basic answer is, not much. A great deal of that based on the fact that there is no human control group that wouldn’t be contaminated and also the fact that we are nearing our trillionth man-made chemical, how could we ever know if the ubiquity of micro plastics are the guilty party in effecting human health?

  2. Dear Christopher, interesting questions. I would really like to know more about your findings. Regarding toxicity, what kind of events (beach closings) do you adress? I am not a natural scientist, but what I find in the literature, it is mostly a high concentration of enterococcus faecalis what leads to bath warnings. Because microplastic gets ingested and later egested by species, it might have some impact. But how can this be researched? Even eucaryotic toxic algal bloom like Red Tide are so complex and multifactorial that is is hard to estimate what caused them. Anyway, most of the bacteria identified as bacterial biofilms on microplastic are not hazardous for human life. However, plastisphere researchers have identified some Vibrio species that are pathogens. In my opinion I think it is important to shift the focus from plastic to the entanglements, networks and lifeforms that are enabled or related by/with plastics.

  3. Hi Sven, Thanks for your presentation, I very much enjoyed watching it. I think you raise a lot of really interesting and complex issues that arise from the blurring of Latour’s ‘great divide’ between nature and culture.

    I have a question about how you construct an ethic or politics from the kind of new materialist positions you outline that claim to refuse human exceptionalism. If we understand marine plastics as the basis for thriving bacterial ecosystems as well as being a hazard for charismatic megafauna such as seals and turtles, what is the basis for arguing that we should act to protect seals but in doing so eradicate the ecology of various microbes?

    While an anthropocentric politics of scale typically recognises more value in the charismatic megafauna, in that we can more easily have affective resonaces with creatures we can see without requiring technological assistance, and we place more moral value on creatures whose biology resembles our own and whose pain and suffering is more easily understood, if we lose any sense of human exceptionalism, why should those creatures be considered more valuable?

    1. Hi Sy, thanks so much for your comment.
      Just to clarify: I do not rely so much on approaches of “new materialism” because I do not think that matters act alone and I think it is more helpful to look on the relational side of networks (there is a good critique on new materialism by Abrahamsson et al 2015: Therefore ,I do not think it is so helpful to discuss either larger species like seals or microbial life is more important to care for. Rather, a focus on the microbial might bring new perspectices – like why albatrosses or other seabirds are attracted to ingest microplastics: maybe they are much more attracted to the bacteria and the biofouling processes that release a sulphurous smell.
      My aim to focus on scales and towards the microscopic level is to challenge hegemonic narratives about plastics in the ocean that always come along with simplistic solutions. Yes, and sometimes pictures of “garbage carpets” or seals or albatrosses are then used to accelerate the (moral) urgency for these kinds of solutions. Imaginations of technological fixes like the “Ocean Cleanup” are operating on these kind of scales. They do not care for the smaller species in marine ecosystems like plankton. But these kind of solutions always gain publicity because the ocean is still commonly adressed as a large body of water, nothing more.
      However, I do not think the question seals vs. microbial life is quite productive. There is no way of getting all the microplastic out of the ocean (or did I oversee some new developments in nano-bots?) that is still in the marine environment. What is interesting, that also these microbial lifeforms need some space to settle, so when microplastic further degrades into pieces of few micrometers or even nanometers diatoms or bacteria they will not serve as a habitat.
      Furthermore, regarding the anthropocentric part of the discussion I think we have to challenge the “We” in the discussion. Regarding Richard Thompson’s contribution I would argue it is right that there is no denial of plastic litter in the ocean (compared with debates about climate change), but I would add there is a denial of complexity in the discussion. It is interesting to see that the problem is adressed much more on a political agenda than other ocean problems like overfishing or euthrophication. One the hand it is because a lot of people really believe in the big enginerial solutions proposed, on the other hand it is such a liberal problem: Simultaneously noone is responsible for plastics in the ocean and “we” are all responsible (sound of the Anthropocene) and therefore part of the solution – so mostly consumers get adressed.
      Beyond that, I think the repercussions of the Jambeck paper are very problematic, it makes it easy to shift the focus away from the West, from “good management” and infrastructures towards the “polluting other”.
      Thanks again for your comment and let’s open the floor to more discussion.

      1. Hi Sven

        Thanks for your detailed reply, and for the link which I look forwards to reading. I was a little confused by your response about new materialism, as the authors and concepts I would associate with that term – Barad and intra-active entanglement, Bennett and the agency of assemblages, Haraway and naturecultures/multispecies becoming, Deleuze/Guattari and machinic ecologies – are not readily compatible with the idea that matter, humans or other agents ever act alone.

        That collection of authors does have a quite a range of political perspectives though. While I’m not entirely convinced in some ways by Jodi Dean’s critique of complexity as a trope that effectively functions to maintain neoliberal hegemony, I do think there is something to be said for the way that it can enable the type of technological solutionism you critique, as it can be read to suggest that most people simply do not and cannot understand these problems, so engaging with them should be left to (industrial and economic) experts.

        I think the politics of scale you raise is an important notion, precisely because it highlights the disconnect between the global and geological scales of the issues associated with the Anthropocene, climate change, plastics crises etc. and that of individual consumer, which is the scale at which (you quite rightly point out) they are commonly addressed, outside of engineering. Equally, I agree that the move from individual consumer to a homogenised humanity should be problematised as it masks the enormous inequalities in terms of which groups contribute to these problems, and to what extent they do so (and it is useful to remember that it is often industrial, commercial and military actors that contribute at least as much as domestic consumers).

        But for me there is still the question of what it means to ‘learn to live in the ruins of capitalism’? What kinds of collective actions do these new perspectives suggest, enable, mandate or afford? What is to be done? Can we aspire to do more than just ‘to work within our disorientation
        and distress to negotiate life in human-damaged environments’ (Tsing 2015:131)’

  4. Hi Petra,
    thanks for your inspiring representation and nice music from Sun Ra – that reminds me of another (cultural) concept of the ocean as transgressive and connecting, Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.
    I would be interested if you discuss the construction of the ocean as kind of paradigmatic “container-space” regarding new concepts of space and place in geography and anthropology that are critical of the container-model of space (e.g. transnational migration etc.). When you are introducing plastic debris as something that challenges ocean’s “power of containment” it would be interesting to see how that works, but also how it is so uneven spatially distributed. In the case of the Friendly Floatees the idea of the container is even more striking because the container as the standardized global transport box also is an opaque deposite for the transported goods. Finally, in the accidental case of the rubber ducks, a synthetic object has produced robust data about natural processes like ocean currents.
    In addition, when you theoretise the ocean as a thing-space how can the friction between the local and the global be described? What versions of the ocean are (out) there? How are different knowledge forms and cosmologies interrelated, enacted or silenced? What role does plastic have in these processes?

    1. Hi Sven,

      thanks for your comment.
      Great that you did get the subtle Black Atlantic reference transported through the music of Sun Ra! I’m happy that this worked.
      I’m not sure that discussing the ocean as a “container space” might be the most interesting concept. Maybe you misunderstand me there? Where do you take “Containerspace” from? I’m describing the ocean as a Thing-Space. This in an heideggerian/latourian notion, of the thing that gathers. And i do so exactly because this concept exceeds simple container models of space and is referring to relational models of space, place and planetarity.
      This thinking about Thingspaces emerged from my last research on Storage-Spaces. This research started off with actual containers, and found behind a functional shell an animated, complex, transnational spatial network of relations, ranging way beyond the container in space and time, that can also be understood as an extension of the self into space.
      The ocean’s “possible power of containment” in the talk is referring to the shifting sociotechnical imaginaries of the ocean, that are connected to the idea of the “ocean as place of away” that could for example contain or purify “polluted” things from ancient times to nuclear submarines.
      That is also why I choose here the Friendly Floatees to work on marine plastic, because they are in that sense markers of shifting narratives and complex things per se: “escaped” global consumer goods, tools for oceanographers to map currents, synthetic objects with a “mimetic evocation” of nature blurring categories, indicators of the timely perception of plastic, recurring revenants calling for a “critical responsiveness”,…, and overall producing shifting narratives of plastic in the ocean, which are worth to be analyzed in detail.
      The question of the “Glocal” is one of the most interesting and most discussed in ethnography. (We are trying to elaborate on this local global entanglement in our “experiences of globalization” research group in Berlin). I think the concept of the ocean as Thingspace could be helpful to grasp the methodological tensions around a global problem and its local specifications; and helpful also to describe emerging “ocean cosmologies”; As one can see in the idea of the ocean as “place of no return” that was in place for many different cultures and over a long timespan, and started to transform with plastic pollution. The question yet to answer is: How do materialities, knowledges and narratives related to plastic circulate through various scales –from nature-culture interfaces on a molecular level to global human-ocean-relations?

      1. Thanks Petra for your reply to my somewhat cryptical comment/answer.
        I am just interested how these concepts like container travel in/beyond different realms. From a natureculture perspective I think it is interesting how natural and social theory intersect, for example how the idea of a container-space is constructed according to “invasive species” that are not so far away from concepts of belonging or alienation. The materialities of plastic might serve as good to think with these questions and for collaborative transdisciplinary work. Best, Sven

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *