On Canada's East Coast, researchers look for plastic — and a new way to do science

Emerging research on microplastics suggests they can leak harmful chemicals into the environment. On the East Coast, one researcher is working to understand the impact of these tiny particles — and reckoning with science's colonial legacy at the same time.

March 10th 2021
“(Science) has a big entitlement problem,” Max Liboiron says. Photo by Bojan Fürst

Each summer, Max Liboiron wanders the wind-whipped wooden staves around St. John’s, N.L., asking fish harvesters for fish guts.

Despite competition from angry gulls, they’re easy to come by, says the geography professor at Memorial University and ocean plastic researcher, who spends the winter dissecting the innards under a microscope looking for tiny plastic particles. The fish harvesters constantly see plastic floating around the North Atlantic. They want to know if their catch is safe to eat — and have asked Liboiron to find out.

As a scientist who looks to the communities they work with to guide their research, Liboiron commits to answering the question.

"When I have my community meetings, they give me an ass-whipping and my next set of marching orders," says Liboiron. "That's what they're there for: It's not my brilliance, it's my accountability."

The approach puts Liboiron at the leading edge of two growing concerns: Ocean plastic pollution and reckoning with science's colonial legacy.

Plastic is ubiquitous in the oceans, and large pieces like bags, nets or bottle caps are well known to be harmful to marine animals. But large pieces of plastic aren't the only concern. Emerging research on microplastics — tiny particles of plastic created when large pieces break down — indicates they can leak harmful chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors, into the environment that are then ingested by some animals and humans.

While Liboiron's research has found that not all Newfoundland fish ingest plastic, many other marine animals harvested for food do, and the unknown impacts remain cause for concern.

Liboiron only studies fish harvested for food, including cod caught for Newfoundland's annual food fishery. Photos by Bojan Fürst

It’s not surprising that in Newfoundland and Labrador, where almost half the population fishes for food — about 22 per cent above the national average — concern about the effects of plastic pollution runs high. Except for the territories, it’s the region of Canada where people rely most on wild food. And much of it comes from the North Atlantic, where plastic pollution is rife.

Cutting back plastic production is the only way to end that pollution, says Liboiron, who was consulted by Environment and Climate Change Canada on plastic waste management regulations currently being drafted by the Trudeau government. Under the proposed rules, plastic will be listed as toxic under Canada's environmental protection act, six single-use items will be banned, and plastic producers will be required to fund a comprehensive recycling system.

Liboiron thinks those measures are a good start, but will fall short of solving the problem.

"My recommendation is to end oil subsidies," they say.

From art to fish guts

Sifting through fish guts was not always part of Liboiron’s life plan. Raised in Lac La Biche, Alta., on Treaty 6 territory, they joke: “I’m the only one who went from Fort Mac to Newfoundland for a job.”

Liboiron started off in the art world, completing a bachelor’s in fine art at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, followed by an MFA in studio art at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But art proved unsatisfying to them; an activist at heart, Liboiron concluded artistic practice couldn’t change the world fast enough, nor was it governed by adequate ethical guidelines or standards. “I’m finding science does a better job.”

The drive to have a positive impact eventually led Liboiron to study ocean plastic pollution.

Plastic is ubiquitous in the oceans, and Liboiron often searches Newfoundland beaches for samples to learn more about the problem. Photo by Bojan Fürst

“I was a waste activist in general and was writing a dissertation on various times in history when a waste problem seemed impossible and what had to change to make it feasible to solve,” they say.

For instance, in the 1880s, New York was among the dirtiest places in the world. Waste and excrement were everywhere in the sewer-less city; at the time, most people thought the problem was impossible to fix. Yet, within a few decades, the city had one of the world’s leading solid waste management systems. Liboiron’s doctoral studies examined how a shift in governments' perception of the problem led to effective regulatory measures and the creation of sewer systems to manage it.

From there, pivoting to the 21st century’s “impossible” waste problem seemed natural.

The only way to eliminate plastics from the environment, Liboiron says, is to stop producing them in the first place. Photo by Bojan Fürst

“I changed my career trajectory to the most impossible problem I could think of,” Liboiron says. That shift eventually led them to Memorial University’s geography department, where they started the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) studying plastic in the fish on their own plate. Results of these early studies were presented to the St. John's locals. As more people caught wind of Liboiron’s work, they asked for their fish catches to be tested.

I changed my career trajectory to the most impossible problem I could think of.

Max Liboiron, ocean plastic research and geography professor at Memorial University

The lab’s work expanded provincewide from there, with an increasing number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in both Newfoundland and Labrador extending the team invitations to work with them. For each project, Liboiron asks the communities for questions they want solved. By the time Liboiron finds answers to one set of questions, the communities usually have more ready to go.

Making science accountable

Inviting communities to set the research agenda is a rare departure from conventional scientific practice. Usually, researchers decide on project ideas and questions without consulting the people who live, work and feed themselves from the landscapes being studied. But for Liboiron’s lab, the community-based methodology — they describe it as feminist and anti-colonial — is as important as the research itself.

The humble and anti-colonial approach is the idea that you’re connected to everyone, that you’re not an independent genius.

Max Liboiron, ocean plastic research and geography professor at Memorial University

“The humble and anti-colonial approach is the idea that you’re connected to everyone, that you’re not an independent genius,” Liboiron says. “You’re accountable to people who aren’t in academia and who aren’t scientists — and you’re accountable to them more than you are to scientists.”

The approach leads to different kinds of answers, Liboiron says, that are based in close environmental observation and meet community needs.

It’s an attempt to put into practice an emerging awareness in academic and scientific circles that science exists within the context of colonialism, resource extraction and capitalist economies. Modern science emerged during the Enlightenment and is predicated on the idea that, by relying on scientific methods, scientists uncover objective truths. Scientific knowledge was understood as separate from researchers’ personal thoughts and the broader historical, social and economic contexts they worked in — and thus was seen as more objective and legitimate than other ways of knowing.

Learning how to work better, and more closely with communities in Newfoundland and Labrador is a key part of Liboiron's work. Photo by Bojan Fürst.

Over recent decades, however, social scientists, philosophers and activists have pointed out blind spots in this approach. Scientific methods are important tools to understand and live well within the environment; understanding and responding to climate change, for instance, depends on science. However, Liboiron points out the idea that science is a superior way to understand the world is entwined within European colonialism and has been repeatedly used by colonial governments, including Canada’s, to justify harmful and racist policies — often while boosting researchers’ careers.

Many researchers are becoming more aware of that fraught legacy and are increasingly sensitive to the broader impacts their work can have on the people, communities and places they study. Still, they aren't sure how to put these ideas into practice — a problem CLEAR is trying to address. The key to success is listening to community members and letting them shape the research, Liboiron says. That entails giving up some control.

“(Science) has a big entitlement problem,” Liboiron says. “That’s a big part of colonialism, which is about entitlement to other people’s land for your own goals. I don’t want to reproduce that.”

Liboiron only considers research projects in an area after they've been invited there at least three times. Then, multiple meetings are held with the communities to determine everything from the project research questions to appropriate collection methods to how publication of the results might impact the community’s well-being — and if they should be published at all. Hiring and training local people to conduct the work is also key.

My job is to make myself obsolete so that (communities) don’t need a southern researcher. They might want to work with me ... but they don’t have to.

Max Liboiron, ocean plastic research and geography professor at Memorial University

“My job is to make myself obsolete so that (communities) don’t need a southern researcher,” Liboiron says. “They might want to work with me — that would be lovely — but they don’t have to. That’s what sovereignty is.”

Most communities want to keep the relationship alive, says Liboiron, which is evident in the dozens of projects the CLEAR team is working on. The team's scope is vast, everything from examining the movement of microplastics in a watershed near St. John’s to designing a marine management plan with the Nunatsiavut government. Libroion's work has also been successfully measured against academic standards: they have or are co-leading $5.3 million in grants for current projects and dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals and mainstream publications.

“We wear a very respectful face so that we can spend most of our time in the back room blowing things up,” they joke.

Still, Liboiron and the CLEAR lab stay humble as they search for plastic pollution — and new ways of doing science. “It’s not the lofty, elitist, objective — which is fake anyway — view (we’re seeking),” Liboiron says. “But this deeply relational, accountable and what I would call a more ethical view.”

Using the plural « They » for the singlar « he » may please some of your readers, but to me, it’s just grammatically incorrect and really annoying! I’m concerned about the environment but find that having to ingest this PC stance while learning about the issue is off-putting.

Ya I caught that too but I don't think it's giving stock to new 'gender' pronouns (maybe it is?), rather I think they (oops!) are referring to a group (the lab?) or maybe you're right as well, it is grammatical error. Either way... I'll take the wheat from the chaff.

Max Liboiron makes it clear that banning six single-use plastics impacts a drop in the bucket of the carbon /climate change building plastic injected into the environment. Producer responsibility must be mandated in order for change to happen fast enough to make a difference in our current climate change trajectory. I agree with Max on not subsidizing the oil industry any more. Wise investors know this is not our future. The government needs to LEAD and not react.

I am interested in how to test fish for plastic on both coasts. It seems a brilliant way for recreational harvesters to have part of their catch, be what it may, subjected to micro plastic testing.
What a wake up call to everyone if harvesters realize that their harvest contains micro plastics. I think there would be a much more responsive attitude towards reducing, recycling, and awareness of the damage plastic does in our ecosystems.