Karen Zaklama


March 4, 2019

Cornell Lab Unites Scientific and Artistic Approaches to Promote Reduction of Marine Microplastics

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Despite recent societal efforts to ban straws and grocery bags, plastic continues to be one of the leading source of global pollution. To combat this long running problem,  Bethany Jorgensen, ecology grad, decided that instead of traditional scientific practice, a combination of social media, art and technology is the solution.

Jorgensen and her team in the Civic Ecology Lab seek to combat plastic-related pollution and increase environmental awareness in her Civic Ecology Lab. The primary purpose of the lab, according to her, is to increase community engagement with environmental issues.

Jorgensen’s work focuses on studying how microplastics — tiny plastic particles that are either the product of plastic breakdown or ingredients in many personal care products and chemicals — impact the communities whose livelihoods revolve around fishing or beach and land health.

But besides studying plastic breakdown, Jorgensen also pays heavy attention to the social and political context of environmental issues.

“I’m interested in the political ecology of plastics on both local and global scales,” Jorgensen said. By having research sites on several continents, Jorgensen can engage with communities across a variety of cultures.

After working with a variety of global organizations in 2010, Jorgensen helped launch a social media campaign called Zero Plastic to improve information dissemination regarding marine litter. The campaign reached a broad audience on Facebook specifically, reaching thousands of users and allowing for microplastics research sites to be set up across the world.

According to Jorgensen, to successfully mobilize communities against plastic pollution, the Civic Ecology Lab has to better understand the social and environmental dynamics within a population, for which her team has developed a series of questions, such as “What is it that affected communities are doing to respond, and what are the barriers to action?”

To answer these questions, the Civic Ecology Lab uses methods that are different from traditional scientific practice. By consistently pushing the boundaries of multi-disciplinary scholarship, Jorgensen is performing, what some consider, unorthodox scientific research.

Yet Jorgensen is passionate about the intersection of science, community and culture and believes her methods can pave the way for improvement of the scientific method.

In hopes to develop visualization techniques through different media, Jorgensen collaborated with a variety of artists around the world to embed visual art into her research as a way to improve community engagement.

Using paintings, digital and interactive images and other graphics as a way to increase awareness about how microplastics travel and where they go, Jorgenson’s efforts not only promote interdisciplinary scholarship, but also shed light on how environmental scientific research can contribute to people’s well-being and citizenship.

“I am interested in political ecology and exploring that through visual methods,” Jorgensen said. “It is useful for visualizing how plastics flow through communities and how it impacts visual communities.”

Ultimately, Jorgensen, along with her colleagues at the Civic Ecology Lab, hope to redefine public perception of how microplastics impact marine environments and coastal communities.

“Media tends to be so focused on consumers that it typically erases the narrative of industry, and we are seeing plastic production continuing to increase while we, globally, do not have the capacity to manage plastics at the same pace,” Jorgensen said.

While all this talk of pollution may seem grim, Jorgensen and her colleagues at the Civic Ecology Lab are optimistic about how their work at the intersection of plastic pollution and human behavior will improve civilian resistance to increasing global pollution.

“It has been really interesting contributing to scholarship of microplastics in marine litter,” Jorgensen said. “There are exponential increases in plastic production on a global scale. There is still a lot we do not understand.”