The Atlantic Selects
‘Recycling Is Like a Band-Aid on Gangrene’
Jun 13, 2019
Taylor Hess and Noah Hutton
The documentary filmmaker Noah Hutton was at a scientific symposium when he first encountered Max Liboiron. “I kept hearing some of the sharpest, smartest critiques of [scientific] status-quo assumptions I’ve ever heard,” Hutton told me. “She engaged with other’s viewpoints totally empathetically, but would then forcefully challenge their assumptions in a way that wasn’t personal. It was completely intoxicating and invigorating, like a voice from the future.”
What was most compelling to Hutton, however, was that Liboiron wasn’t just pondering changes to the scientific method on a theoretical level—she was living them. Her Newfoundland lab, the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), interrogates what Liboiron believes to be systemic problems in science. CLEAR conducts its research on microplastics from a feminist and anti-colonial perspective. This epistemic approach informs the lab’s scientific protocols, ethics, and research designs. Taylor Hess and Hutton’s short documentary Guts is an inside look at the lab, the research it conducts on plastic pollution and sustainability, and the way Liboiron empowers citizens to engage in science at the community level.
“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,” Liboiron says in the film. “Reproducing the status quo is deeply political because the status quo is crappy.”
Hutton said that while science—and environmental science in particular—is often viewed as a monolithic force for good, sometimes the scientific status quo “lends itself to universalizing, extractive, and colonial tendencies, even if it starts with good intentions.”
Liboiron’s critiques aren’t limited to methodology. In the documentary, she asks a group of well-intentioned recyclers to look closely at their individual consumer behaviors. The data on waste management, she says, suggest that recycling doesn’t do much to mitigate the problem of plastic pollution. “The only mode of attack is to deal with a heavy decrease in the production of plastics, as opposed to dealing with them after they’ve already been created,” she tells the group. “Your consumer behaviors do not matter. Not on the scale of the problem ... It’s the cessation of production that will make the big-scale changes.” She also advocates for removing subsidies from oil.
“When most people think of plastic pollution, they think of plastic bottles floating around in the ocean,” Hess told me. “They don’t think of the hidden world of toxin-bearing microplastics that also float around in the ocean. These microplastics are ingested by ocean-dwelling animals and then passed up the food chain and ‘biomagnified’ to the humans who eat them.” The plastics then become a part of our biome and may pose various health risks, the extent of which researchers are only beginning to understand.
Liboiron has made conducting research on plastic pollution accessible to members of her community—a growing trend often referred to as “citizen science.” “Max and the CLEAR lab have invented these brilliant, cheeky devices that allow anyone, anywhere, to conduct microplastics testing on their waterways for readily available or cheap materials,” Hess said. In the film, Liboiron explains how her inventions—“equitable tools,” as she calls them—make it possible for rural Newfoundlanders to monitor the level of microplastic contamination in local water sources.
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.