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Pollution and accountability

Plastic pollution report asks: Who is responsible?


By Terri Coles

Newfoundland and Labrador’s plastic waste washes up as far afield as Scotland, Spain and Portugal.

A DFO fish tag that washed up on the shores of Scotland.
Photo: Martin Gray

That’s just one of several valuable findings from a team of Memorial University researchers in a new study of the province’s plastic pollution trends from 1962-2019.

Over the past four years, Dr. Max Liboiron, the director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), and her laboratory monitored and looked for all research mentions of plastic in the province they could find.

They managed to find more than 50 sources, she says, which was substantial. But the mentions were often one-offs, and none of the findings spoke to each other.

Dr. Liboiron, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the research lead, and her team synthesized the data with the help of experts from across the province. The resulting 90-page report is a reference for the current state of knowledge of plastic pollution in the province.

Travelling fish tags

Geography graduate student Nadia Duman’s work on plastic fish tags is a key part of the report’s findings.

“One of the cool things that Nadia’s research found is that our plastics, they don’t really come from other places,” Dr. Liboiron said. “And all our plastics go east to Europe. We’re a net global contributor, not a net global landing place.”

Ocean currents carry Newfoundland and Labrador’s plastic trash across the Atlantic. Ms. Duman found that plastic tags from this province wash ashore in France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the U.K.

Nadia Duman (left) and Max Liboiron stand on rocks by the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's.
From left are Nadia Duman and Dr. Max Liboiron on rocks by the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in St. John’s, N.L.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Citizen science was an important part of this research, says Ms. Duman. Expert beachcombers in several countries shared their findings. Local people, including fish harvesters, engaged with the research team about what they saw in and near the water.

People around the province are concerned about shoreline plastics, she says, and the implications of the team’s research matter to them.

“It’s not only about understanding the characteristics of plastics,” she said of the research. “It’s also to connect with the community, with the needs of the community, to fill those gaps in knowledge that they may have.”

Plastic bag findings

The findings also provide a baseline of data as the province prepares for a delayed ban on plastic shopping bags that comes into effect on Oct. 1.

Data from two areas — Nain and Fogo Island — with existing bag bans are part of the research, Dr. Liboiron says. They found fewer plastic bags than average in Fogo Island, but more than average in Nain.

That result was surprising on the surface, given the ban. But the bags found in Nain were other kinds, like sandwich bags or fish bags.

“This actually fits in the global literature, which is when there’s a ban, you find ways to move around the ban,” Dr. Liboiron said.

This discovery highlights the importance of understanding how a community uses bags and providing alternatives to plastic after a ban.

Abandoned fishing gear that washed up in St. Shotts.
Photo: Max Liboiron

The team learned that the ban was effective when they spoke to residents, though.

“When I talk to folks in Nain, they’re like, ‘Yes, there are other plastics here,'” Dr. Liboiron said. “But the plastic bags we used to see all over the place in the harbour, those are gone.”

There is no existing data about plastic bags found before the ban, she says. But community knowledge shows the ban had an effect.

The report’s findings are wide ranging. But they all show that plastic waste produced by Newfoundland and Labrador affects not just residents of this province, but people in other parts of the world.

“One of the conversations that Max and I have been having is in terms of accountability, because this plastic is ours,” Ms. Dumas said.

‘This research is giving a lot of space for discussions in terms of who is responsible for these plastics? How are we managing it?”

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