(Un)Real Ecologies - Microplastics
Kat Austen & Nana MacLean
7/8 July, 2018
Photos courtesy Kat Austen
Plastic has pervaded water, soil and our bodies. It is the new icon
of our time. During the (Un)Real Ecologies: Microplastics workshop
explored the presence of microplastics in the Panke River, near
Art Laboratory Berlin. How do organisms and microorganisms exist
with and construct with these human-made materials? We interrogated
the water samples, to discover a new understanding of the reality
of the Panke's ecosystem, with plastic present and wholly a part
of it - a microcosm that allows us to ask: "what is nature?"
Austen is a succession of experiences and an assemblage of aspirations.
She creates artworks that explore multiple knowledges, from music
to embodied knowledge to DIY science, focusing on emotional connections
between what we consider internal and external. Kat is Cultural
Fellow in Art and Science at the University of Leeds, lectures on
UCL's Arts and Sciences BASc, and is Artist in Residence in UCL's
Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences. Previous residencies include
NYU Shanghai Gallery and ArtOxygen. Kat was an inaugural member
of the London Creative Network programme. She is based in Berlin.
Nana MacLean studied Biology at the UvA Amsterdam and has
recently finished her Master studies in Molecular Biology at the
University Potsdam. Besides her studies, she has been involved in
projects that crossed borders between disciplinary styles and methods
- embracing both speculative design and performative collaborations.
As a PhD student, Nana is currently working on microbial communities
in anthropogenic landscapes and plastic polluted grounds at the
GFZ Helmholtz Center Potsdam. Her research focuses on Plastic as
biological habitat, and furthermore explores future ecologies and
areas of research that involve storytelling and other imaginative
methodologies. Nana is based in Potsdam and Berlin.
The Panke river is a small river that starts about 20 km north of
Art Laboratory Berlin close to the small town of Bernau. During
its way down into the city Berlin, the Panke changes into a straightened
urban stream that receives rain and mixed waters from the surrounding
districts. We explored two sections of the Panke, an 'upstream'
part around ALB is bordered by parks, green shrubby watersides and
a swampy floodplain. The more downstream we go, the more influenced
the ecosystem will become by urban factors. The 'downstream' part
of the Panke around Gerichtstrasse already shows less water plant
vegetation than on the 'upstream' part. In order to collect (micro)plastic
from the water stream, we placed fine nets inside the river that
collected all particles flowing through that part of the Panke overnight.
To understand the status of human influence in the different parts
of the Panke, we compared water from these two parts of the Panke.
We searched for visible interactions between plastics and biota
in and around the Panke. Asking how organisms and inhabitants of
the Panke live with plastic in their habitat?
Plastics come in different shapes, textures and material properties.
Their chemical properties makes them generally very resistant to
natural degradation processes by fungi, algae or bacteria. However,
the term plastisphere has been used by biologists to describe the
living microworld attached to plastic particles in the environment.
Surprisingly, plastic seems to be much more than just an human-made
waste product: In marine ecosystems it was found that pieces of
plastics carry a very specific community of fungi, algae and bacteria.
Using a microscope, we can get a close and intimate look into their
habitat. In the workshop examined the plastisphere of the Panke
and observed the shapes and forms of how organisms interact with
plastic. For this step, we chose some interesting particles from
our catch and used the available microscopes to get a close look
at plastics and living creatures.
we used a two step chemical protocol for the analysis of (micro)
plastics in our water samples. In our case, plastics include hard
plastics, soft plastics (e.g., foams), films, line, and sheets.
Microplastic is defined by its size smaller than 5mm, so with our
nets (200 microns) caught all sizes between 5mm and 0.2mm. During
the two days of the workshop we split our samples into different
groups, so that we could compare the different procedures with each
solid particles in soil or waters are a mixture of minerals (abiogenic:
not produced by living organisms), organic matter that are carbon-based
remains from living organisms or their waste product and recently
of synthesized anthropogenic compounds that find their way into
both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
of these compounds have a specific density range and will either
float or sink in a given liquid column. In order to divide those
three fractions from our water samples, we separated them according
to their density. Using a saturated salt solution created a liquid
in which plastic and minerals clearly separate from each other.
But first, we needed to remove all organic compounds, leaving only
minerals and plastics! Adding hydrogen peroxide solution (30%) to
your sample is a common method for the elimination of organic matter
as it strongly reacts with all organic carbon.
Workshop overview and protocols here
Documentation file here
- To remove all organic matter we performed a wet hydrogen peroxide
oxidation (see protocols in link above). We did this in two groups:
One group used a DIY protocol with a 9% hydrogen Peroxide level
(due to German regulations which limit the solution strength for
general sale) as well as other household chemicals to carry out
the experiment. The other group used the lab protocol with 30% Hydrogen
peroxide solution. Both groups were able to perform the protocols
successfully. The upstream DIY samples (using H2O2 from hair dye)
produced bubbles and the solution had a brownish rusty colour. Under
the microscope we found few mircroplastic particles, mostly thread-like
fibres. The downstream samples contained more microplastic particles,
both in samples oxidised using DIY and lab protocols.
We managed to stain plastic particles with fluorescent dye and could
identify them under the microscope, separately from other abiogenic
Using coloured liquids of different densities we created a DIY density
column and placed plastic particles (usually between 2-5mm in the
column - see fig. 13 below). In this way we learned about how to
identify different plastic types found in the environment according
to their individual density.
Additionally during the sieving process we were able to extract
various flora and fauna from the Panke river. Amongst the most numerous
were small (< 5mm) crustaceans, as well as various protists.
A spectrum analysis of an upstream water sample is forthcoming.
also discussed the issue of microplastics in water from socio-cultural
as well as art-science perspectives. Among the many noteworthy points
we discussed plastic as another 'banal' carbon-based molecule (inspired
by Kat's comments). These and other points of discussion sought
to open a wider public discussion on microplastics and DIY science/
Friday, 6 July, 2018
16.30-18.30 (optional) Meet at ALB with Kat Austen and Nana MacLean
and members of DIY Hack the Panke.
Placing the nets along the Panke river.
Saturday, 7 July, 2018 | Microplastics Workshop Part I
10:00 Meet at ALB, doors open, coffee and meet / briefing &
microplastic introductions with Kat and Nana
10:45 Exploration Panke and collect net samples
11:45 ALB: outline of protocols
12:00 Microscope analysis and beginning of chemical microplastic
13:30 Lunch break at Panke e.V
14:30 Continue microscope analysis and chemical analysis
15:30 Creation around microscope analysis
16:00 Finishing up
Sunday, 8 July, 2018| Microplastics Workshop Part II
9:30 Brunch at ALB
10:30 Work with samples and reactions from Saturday
10:50 DIY chemical protocol preparation
13:00 Lunch break
14:00 Last experiments and cleaning
15:30 Discussion and presentation of results
1 Kat finding plastic particles on the street along the Panke. Photo:
2 Laying the upstream net on Friday 6 July. Photo:
Art Laboratory Berlin
the upstream net on Friday 6 July.
Art Laboratory Berlin
4 Searching the Panke for plastic waste., Saturday 7 July. Photo:
5 Water and flora sample. Saturday 7 July. Photo:
Art Laboratory Berlin
6 Back at Art Laboratory Berlin, Saturday 7 July. Photo:
7 Digital microscopy. Saturday 7 July Photo:
Fig. 8 Crustacean found in Panke, ca.5mm (mag.50x)
Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin
9 Preparing NILE red flourescent dye for plastic identification.
10 Microplastics found using NILE red flourescent dye.
Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin
11 Wet hydrogen peroxide oxidation. Saturday 7 July. Photo:
12 Wet hydrogen peroxide oxidation with Kat. Saturday 7 JulyPhoto:
Fig. 13 DIY Density column with microplastics. Sunday
8 July. Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin
Organised together with DIY Hack the Panke.
of the Shared Habitats Project, organised by Institutio Media
and funded by Nordic Culture Point: