Insidious Strings

The pollution of our oceans, and the Earth’s other environments, by plastic debris has become a visible familiar to most of us. Most people are aware of this in its visible form, that is plastic pollution in the form of containers and bottles. It is, however, the less visible forms of plastic pollution, the so-called microplastics that are likely to represent a greater risk to the animals and plants of the oceans that their more visible counterpart. This is because a range of organisms can ingest these particles and this can transfer and concentrate chemical pollution into the marine food chain. Microplastics can range in size from a few millimetres , to being invisible to the naked eye, and it is likely that this is the most abundant form of plastic debris pollution. One particularly, insidious form of microplastic pollution comes in the form of microfibers, invisible threads of artificial polymer (acrylic, nylon etc.) that slough of our clothes, and which after the washing of clothes, pass through our sewage treatment plants in huge numbers, into rivers, and thence the oceans. In some places, these fibres make up some 80% of the microplastics found in the sea and in a recent study not a single beach was found to be free of this insidious and synthetic lint.

The images that follow are the outcome of arts research project that I carried out 200km north of the arctic circle, in order to demonstrate the ubiquity of this insidious pollutant. Nearly, all of our clothes as they are manufactured, or when they are washed, are doped with compounds called optical brighteners. These synthetic agents work by fluorescing, that is they absorb ultraviolet light (from sunlight or artificial lighting), and reemit the radiation at a different and visible wavelength, making the clothing appear brighter or whiter than it would otherwise be. With this knowledge, I knew that this normally overlooked type of pollutant would reveal itself if exposed to ultraviolet light, in that it would appear to glow. What I found was that in this naturally pristine environment, there was an astonishing amount of microfibre pollution, that revealed itself as tiny coloured and glowing threads against the backdrop of the non-fluorescent snow. In the images, the threads appear vibrate and this is because I lacked a tripod to steady the camera. Nevertheless, I really like the effect, as these small vibrating strings seem to mimic the activity of the natural aurora that was overhead at the time.

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