, Volume 48, Issue 8, pp 855–866 | Cite as

Embracing an interdisciplinary approach to plastics pollution awareness and action

  • Sara L. BelontzEmail author
  • Patricia L. Corcoran
  • Heather Davis
  • Kathleen A. Hill
  • Kelly Jazvac
  • Kirsty Robertson
  • Kelly Wood


This paper considers how an interdisciplinary approach to the “wicked problem” of plastics pollution offers unique and important collaborative possibilities. Specially, the paper considers the approach of the Synthetic Collective, a group comprising artists, humanities scholars, and scientists. Considering first how artists and scientists might respond differently to tracking, mapping, understanding, and representing plastics pollution, we then look for potential points of commonality across disciplinary difference. In respect to the urgent and multifaceted problem of marine plastics pollution in the Great Lakes region, we ask what are some of the successes and pitfalls of bringing together diverse approaches and interests? The paper concludes with a clear strategy: a set of instructions geared towards building successful interdisciplinary collaborations. Ultimately, we conclude that a strong relationship amongst scientists and artists is possible, fruitful, and indeed warranted when shared goals are the driving principle of the group.


Arts Humanities Interdisciplinary Plastics pollution Sciences Wicked problem 



We would like to acknowledge the funding support received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). We also thank the many researchers who have contributed to the mission of the Synthetic Collective, especially Drs. Lorena Rios, Paul Helm, Max Liboiron, Sara Seck, and Elizabeth Gillies. Lastly, we are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their useful suggestions that improved the paper.

Supplementary material

13280_2018_1126_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (849 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 848 kb)


  1. Alliance for the Great Lakes. 2018. Adopt-a-Beach. Accessed 29 May 2017.
  2. Ballent, A., S. Pando, A. Purser, M.F. Juliano, and L. Thomsen. 2013. Modelled transport of benthic marine microplastic pollution in the Nazar Canyon. Biogeosciences 10: 7957–7970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ballent, A., P.L. Corcoran, O. Madden, P.A. Helm, and F.J. Longstaffe. 2016. Sources and sinks of microplastics in Canadian Lake Ontario nearshore, tributary and beach sediments. Marine Pollution Bulletin 110: 383–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barnes, D.K.A. 2002. Invasions by marine life on plastic debris. Nature 416: 808–809.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barnes, D.K.A., F. Galgani, R.C. Thompson, and M. Barlaz. 2009. Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 364: 1985–1998.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bergmann, M., B. Lutz, M.B. Tekman, and L. Gutow. 2017. Citizen scientists reveal: Marine litter pollutes Arctic beaches and affects wild life. Marine Pollution Bulletin 125: 535–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Browne, M.A., P. Crump, S.J. Niven, E. Teuten, A. Tonkin, T. Galloway, and R. Thompson. 2011. Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: Sources and sinks. Environmental Science and Technology 45: 9175–9179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burke, T.A., W.E. Cascio, D.L. Costa, K. Deener, T.D. Fontaine, F.A. Fulk, L.E. Jackson, W.R. Munns Jr., et al. 2017. Rethinking environmental protection: meeting the Challenges of a changing world. Environmental Health Perspectives 125: 43–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cai, L., J. Wang, J. Peng, Z. Tan, Z. Zhan, X. Tan, and Q. Chen. 2017. Characteristic of microplastics in the atmospheric fallout from Dongguan city, China: preliminary research and first evidence. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 24: 24928–24935.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cole, M., P.P.K. Lindeque, E. Fileman, C. Halsband, R. Goodhead, J. Moger, et al. 2013. Microplastic Ingestion by Zooplankton. Environmental Science and Technology 47: 6646–6655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Corcoran, P.L., C.J. Moore, and K. Jazvac. 2014. An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record. GSA Today 24: 4–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Corcoran, P.L., T. Norris, T. Ceccanese, M.J. Walzak, P.A. Helm, and C.H. Marvin. 2015. Hidden plastics of Lake Ontario, Canada and their potential preservation in the sediment record. Environmental Pollution 204: 17–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Corcoran, P.L., K. Jazvac, and A. Ballent. 2017. Plastics and the Anthropocene. In The encyclopedia of the anthropocene, vol. 1, ed. Dominick.A. DellaSala and Michael.I. Goldstein, 163–170. Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  14. Davis, H. 2015a. Toxic progeny: The plastisphere and other queer futures. PhiloSOPHIA 5: 232–250.Google Scholar
  15. Davis, H. 2015b. Life and death in the anthropocene: A short history of plastic. In Art in the anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies, ed. H. Davis and E. Turpin, 347–358. London: Open Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  16. Dris, R., J. Gasperi, M. Saad, C. Mirande, and B. Tassin. 2016. Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: A source of microplastics in the environment? Marine Pollution Bulletin 104: 290–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eagle, L., M. Hamann, and D.R. Low. 2015. The role of social marketing, marine turtles and sustainable tourism in reducing plastic pollution. Marine Pollution Bulletin 107: 324–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gabrys, J., G. Hawkins, and M. Michael. 2013. Accumulation: The material politics of plastic. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gall, S.C., and R.C. Thompson. 2015. The impact of debris on marine life. Marine Pollution Bulletin 92: 170–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Geyer, R., J.R. Jambeck, and K.L. Law. 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3: 25–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gregory, M.R. 2009. Environmental implications of plastic debris in marine settings—Entanglement, ingestion, smothering, hangers-on, hitch-hiking and alien invasions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 2013–2025.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Head, B.W., and J. Alford. 2015. Wicked problems: Implications for public policy and management. Administration & Society 47: 711–739.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hidalgo-Ruz, V., and M. Thiel. 2013. Distribution and abundance of small plastic debris on beaches in the SE Pacific (Chile): A study supported by a citizen science project. Marine Environmental Research 87–88: 12–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Higgie, J., 2012. Shouts and murmurs. Frieze Magazine Art As Activism, 149.Google Scholar
  25. Huang, M.N. 2017. Ecologies of entanglement in the great pacific garbage patch. Journal of Asian American Studies 20: 95–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Huutoniemi, K., and I. Rafols. 2017. Interdisciplinarity in Research Evaluation. Oxford Handbooks Online. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press.
  27. Jambeck, J.R., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T.R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, and K.L. Law. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science Magazine 347: 768–771.Google Scholar
  28. Kane, G.C., R.G. Fichman, J. Gallaugher, and J. Glaser. 2009. Community relations 2.0. Harvard Business Review 87: 45–50.Google Scholar
  29. Klein, J.T. 2008. Evaluation of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. A literature review. American Journal of preventative Medicine 35: 116–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kühn, S., E.L. Bravo Rebolledo, and J.A. van Franeker. 2015. Deleterious effects of litter on marine life. In Marine anthropogenic litter, ed. M. Bergmann, L. Gutow, and M. Klages. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  31. Law, K.L. 2010. Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. Science 329: 1185–1188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Liboiron, M. 2015. Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics. Journal of Material Culture 21: 87–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Liboiron, M., F. Liboiron, E. Wells, N. Richárd, A. Zahara, C. Mather, H. Bradshaw, and J. Murichi. 2016. Low plastic ingestion rate in Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) from newfoundland destined for human consumption collected through citizen science methods. Marine Pollution Bulletin 113: 428–437.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Long, M., M. Long, B. Moriceau, M. Gallinari, C. Lambert, A. Huvet, J. Raffray, and P. Soudant. 2015. Interactions between microplastics and phytoplankton aggregates: Impact on their respective fates. Marine Chemistry 175: 39–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2005. Facilitating interdisciplinary research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  36. Pate, A., and E.E. McKinnon. 2016. A citizen engagement approach to water advocacy: Experiences from “eXXpedition Great Lakes”. Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 12: 99–108.Google Scholar
  37. Peng, G., B. Zhu, D. Yang, L. Su, H. Shi, and D. Li. 2017. Microplastics in sediments of the Changjiang Estuary, China. Environmental Pollution 225: 283–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rittel, H.W.J., and M.M. Webber. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4: 155–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Robertson, K. 2016. Plastiglomerate. E-flux Journal 86.
  40. Schmidt, C., T. Krauth, and S. Wagner. 2017. Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environmental Science and Technology 51: 12246–12253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Setälä, O., V. Fleming-Lehtinen, and M. Lehtiniemi. 2014. Ingestion and transfer of microplastics in the planktonic food web. Environmental Pollution 185: 77–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Silvertown, J. 2009. A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 467–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sruthy, S., and E.V. Ramasamy. 2017. Microplastic pollution in Vembanad Lake, Kerala, India: The first report of microplastics in lake and estuarine sediments in India. Environmental Pollution 222: 315–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Stutchbury, T., C. Gibson, L. Moxham, C. Schofield, and G. Spinks. 2015. White paper: Challenge-led interdisciplinary research programs. Global Challenges. University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia, pp. 1–17.
  45. Turra, A., B. Manzano, R. Jasa, S. Dias, M.M. Mahiques, L. Barbosa, D. Balthazar-Silva, and F.T. Moreira. 2014. Three-dimensional distribution of plastic pellets in sandy beaches: Shifting paradigms. Scientific Reports 44: 1–7.Google Scholar
  46. Zalasiewicz, J., C.N. Waters, J.A. Ivar do Sul, P.L. Corcoran, A.D. Barnosky, A. Cearreta, M. Edgeworth, A. Gauszka, et al. 2016. The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 13: 4–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sara L. Belontz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Patricia L. Corcoran
    • 1
  • Heather Davis
    • 2
  • Kathleen A. Hill
    • 3
  • Kelly Jazvac
    • 4
  • Kirsty Robertson
    • 5
  • Kelly Wood
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Earth SciencesUniversity of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  2. 2.Eugene Lang CollegeThe New SchoolNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  4. 4.Department of Studio ArtsConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada
  5. 5.Department of Visual ArtsUniversity of Western OntarioLondonCanada

Personalised recommendations