Margaret Murphy on Plastic Pollution & Climate Emergency - Surface Time with Stephanie

Episode 5

S1 Ep3: Margaret Murphy on Plastic Pollution & Climate Emergency

Surface Time with my dear friend Margaret Murphy, who is a scientist, trained in zoology and toxicology and now works in the space of science policies in Washington DC, the epic centre of US politics. Although she claims to be a reluctant diver, her scientist-curiosity has always kept her entertained and fascinated by the marine diversity. I probed for her view on plastic pollution and vegetarianism, and I genuinely love how she shared a well-balanced and objective executive summary of these complex topics. In short, if we want to live a life where our blue planet remains a beautiful place or even better, we need to do our part in dealing with climate emergency, starting from right now.

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where I chit chat with people who are like me, scuba diver and chronic addict to being underwater.

During the Surface Time today, I caught up with my dear friend Margaret Murphy who is a scientist, trained in zoology and toxicology, and now works in the space of science policies in Washington, DC, the epicenter of U.S. politics. Although she claims to be a reluctant diver, her scientist curiosity has always kept her entertained and fascinated by the marine diversity. I probed for her view on plastic pollution and vegetarianism and I genuinely love how she shared a well balanced and objective executive summary of these complex topics.

Hi Margaret.


[00:01:05] Stephanie (2): I'm good. How are you ?


[00:01:09] Stephanie (2): Where are you now?


[00:01:13] Stephanie (2): Wow. Thank you for agreeing to do this with me. I wanted to partly to catch up with you and have a chat about what you have been up to. How's your life there? It's been a few years now. Hasn't it?


American politics are always far too interesting. It's been a lot of different things happening over the last 10 years in various ways. Being close to Washington means you're in the thick of it all the time.


[00:01:41] Margaret: Yeah, I think like most people, a lot of us just worked from home for a very long time. I don't have children. So I think I was fortunate not to have the major life disruptions the parents had. And I don't run a research lab anymore. My colleagues who work in academia still, the disruption to teaching and to research was enormous.

We had quite serious cases in the U.S. And so we are probably just coming out of it now, though, I'm hesitant to say we are in any way actually out of it. Certainly where I live, I'm very lucky, the vaccination rate is pretty high. And generally speaking people take masking seriously and try to be responsible. Broadly it's been okay as much as a global pandemic and feel like it's okay. Everyone seems to be doing their part, which matters a lot.


[00:02:42] Margaret: Ooh, that's a very good question. I am not a dive junkie in the same way that you are. And so it has been a while since I went diving, I think it was when I was still in Hong Kong. So yeah, that would be probably a trip to the Philippines. I think


[00:02:54] Margaret: Might've been Cebu, I think that might've been my last memorable dive.


[00:03:01] Margaret: Yeah. Yes.


[00:03:12] Margaret: yes. I was actually just telling a friend about that the other day. I remember very clearly the experience of, resting gently on the bottom and having six or eight, I think it was juvenile whale sharks vertical in the water around us, just chugging water through their gills. As they were filter feeding the little shrimp the fishermen had for them.

It was an amazing experience. Just being there and seeing that. And, I love that we were so in their world and, they swam around as they pleased and you had to watch for a tail and you had to watch for a fin and if they swam by. You just had to be careful to watch where they were going and get out of their way.

It was their space, which I really loved. I will say I had just a little bit of concern. I was glad to do it. It was amazing. But of course, having juvenile animals in a feeding situation can be detrimental to their health because they then think of that place as being a source of food and go back there.

And if the human situation changes, they can be endangered, if something happens with the village there, or the situation changes with the management, the sharks don't know, and they maybe don't make the right decision for them. So I had, I was a little bit of two mines. On the one hand, I thought it was an amazing experience.

On the other hand, I was a little bit worried. I know that the people there were trying their absolute best to be very responsible and to be very respectful of the animals. But I did worry a little bit about that. So again, of two minds, it was amazing, but also I was thinking about from the management viewpoint.


But then he also saw the other side. What he saw was the relationship between the human and wild animal, like how they would just come to them feeling totally comfortable coming to that. And then the other thing, he also appointed out was because only the juvenile come to that particular harbour.

From what I could remember. There's also a suggestion that they may have their own way of adjusting to it. What do you think of that?


I always think about the worst case scenario and think about what would that look like. To me, the worst case scenario is somebody knows that those juveniles know to go to that place and decides to go fin them, because all they have to do is basically run a boat. The juveniles don't know that it's not someone who wants to feed them, but someone who has other motives.

I am always very pleased to see where you have situations where nature is benefiting people and people are benefiting nature. Again, I always just worry about the management can continue to benefit in the long term and long term is hard, right? It's hard to put things in place that lasts and that are mutually beneficial.

I think the idea is that the sharks are moving around in different ways, in different parts of their lives. And when they're juvenile stages, perhaps the interactions they're having with the fishermen are neutral or even beneficial. Then they move on as adults and as long as they are cared for in that juvenile state and leave that juvenile state to become adults and go do their thing that I think it's a great arrangement if it works out that way.


[00:06:36] Margaret: I'm not a diving addict. For the audience, Steph and I are in a group that kind of does all kinds of outdoor stuff.

So my primary love is more the land-based things. I like hiking and rock climbing. I was always a little bit of a reluctant diver of this seems cool and I want to try it, but I am not a natural at this. I do risk assessment as a career.

So I go to the worst case and the worst case is your regulator fails; you pass out, but underwater, you run out of oxygen. There's just way too many things that can fail. My climbing rope I could test, I could check ultimately just the ground. I'm not underwater. So again, I am not a natural diver, but I was very lucky to make friends like Steph who are natural divers and love it. It's dearly. We had the experience in Hong Kong of typically you train in Hong Kong because it's convenient and it's not too deep and you have a safe environment and then you can travel very easily, locally to beautiful places and then get to like experience more of the breadth and beauty of diving.

And so I still remember my first trip. I believe it was to Puerto Galera in the Philippines. And we went as a big group and, we're out on our first trip and I'm wearing my wetsuit and I have all my gear on, and I'm just thinking " oh, this is hot" and "ah, this is nerve wracking". And " I don't know if I really want to do this". And I'm like, all right, we're getting in the water. So we all roll into the water and I'm like, all right, I guess we'll do this. So I'm getting myself ready and they're like, okay, we're descending. All right, fine. I guess I'll do this.

And of course, the second we got below the water level, and I see the blue below me and I see the fish swimming, it was like, "woo, this is amazing". I am not somebody who's going to sit there on the dive boat, like just, salivating for what's about to happen.

But once I get in the water and I get under it, I remember that I have enough training to be comfortable, I'm with people who are going to take care of me and there's just so much to see. And so different, if you're lucky to go to places where there is a lot of local marine diversity.

Where you have a, maybe a small reef in one place where you have rocky cliffs and then another, or you have sandy bottoms where each day can be so different from the previous. You just get the chance to really see all kinds of different things. So that sense of wonder doesn't change. You go below the surface and I think Steph, you have this every single time, which is why you are a dive junkie.

It's just amazing to just get to experience that. I'm not technically a marine biologist. My training is in zoology and toxicology. I'm always looking at diversity, like what's out there? What does stuff look like?

I love, buying like guides to local fish just getting familiar with the animals that might occur on the dives that we go on or the other people have seen. So I love like dive lists. I love all kinds of things. Just to see what could be out there and what is out there, what people have seen, how frequently, what occurs.

So the diversity is really amazing to me. And then again, the privilege with the Whale shark case of just being in their world and getting to see them do their thing, just sitting and getting to watch them interact. I know that photography is something that many people have a great passion for.

I would much rather just sit and watch them. I don't need to have them with my flash rig perfectly captured in the sunbeam. I'd much rather just sit and watch and just see and see the interactions.

I think it was another trip, but it wasn't a case where we had some really good wall diving. It was just a little bit of a wall that we could dive. And I remember thinking like, I could easily just sit here and like stare at the tiny things in this wall for an hour and a half. I could just sit and just watch them and just try to figure out like, what's here. What's it doing? And so I think that to me is one of the most amazing things.

Even as a reluctant diver, there's no way that you can deny just the beauty and the amazingness of, and the thing that makes me uncomfortable is the very thing I love.

I am not part of that world. And I do not belong there. Like it is not my place, but also it is a privilege to get to go and see that place. And to be with whatever animals are there. And we went to Malapascua and saw the thresher sharks and there's just so much amazing things to see. And every time it really is just so mind blowing, that it's all there.


[00:10:18] Margaret: Sandbar.


[00:10:24] Margaret: It is indeed. So we can paint the picture. So basically we were in Malapascua and the dive resort we were staying at had told us that "there's this beautiful, like butterfly shaped sort of sand island in the middle of the sea, near Malapascua. We could take you all over on the boat". We thought, "oh, that's great". And so we're going out on the boat. It was just so beautiful. We saw like Ray dive on the way, just jumped out of the water completely, which was just the coolest thing. One of those things you think you must be hallucinating like "that didn't just happen" and indeed, it did. Because multiple people saw and they were like "what is that?" We had to confer that we are not hallucinating. So we arrived at the island and it is exactly as pictured like white sand, turquoise water, palm trees, just beautiful.

There's a lot of different boats pulled up and people are just relaxed and enjoying the day. So we're like, let's go walk around and have a sense of the place. It's not very big. So we get to the sort of the edge of the island and there is a sandbar. Basically a jet of sand, that's going out into the water. We're all like let's just walk out and see if you like how far it goes. And so we all start walking out. We're teasing each other about something. I don't even remember. I do remember my friend Denise's husband Punit be very excited about the sandbar, the phrase, "the sandbar yeah" was uttered, I believe. Everyone was very excited to go out on the sandbar.

And so we all start walking out and water's getting deeper, because that's how it works, when you're going out into the sea. At some point we all realize " oh, okay, it's getting pretty deep." and also notice that people are starting to float away from us. So not only has it got deeper, but people have gotten their feet off of the sand and ended up floated.

So we have a case where basically a number of us had to figure out how to get attached to each other. There was various calls for rescue. I was wearing my wetsuits still mostly for sun protection, but I was fortunate because of course it added to my buoyancy.

And so I stopped. Somehow by luck, managed to get myself perpendicular to what we later found out was a rip current and get myself back to the shore. Still clutching my flip flops in my hand because I'd had them on my feet while we were walking around.

Someone on the shore had seen us and that person went out with one of those red lifeguard buoy and try to help. And it was clearly not enough because there were 10 people out there, all of whom needed rescuing and it was not good.

And then I think there was some like canoe or kayak that someone brought out and likewise 10 people hanging on the side also did not work very well. And at some point my friend, Denise, whose husband Punit "sandbar yay", she said to one of the people attempting to rescue the group who was like "oh, could you get my husband?"

Because he was somewhere off in the distance, like with only tips of his toes and the peak of his hat showing above the water as he floated away to the horizon. During all of these our dive boat they were keeping an eye on things and they finally were like, okay, that's just about enough of that and they keep chugging around the corner and restored order. Once we had finally made our way back to shore, we found the indicating that the sandbar was a rip current risk tipped on its side somewhere off the beach. So we were operating without full information, but you can make the argument we were not also making the best decisions. So it was a beautiful island at a very eventful day.


[00:13:15] Margaret: No, it was not placed for optimal viewing. But they can claim that there was signage. Just not actually visible to anyone looking to stroll off into the blue sea that day.


You know what Mag one thing that's amazing about our group is we have many crazy stories like this but we have not lost a single life and none of us ever ended up in the emergency room.


[00:14:05] Stephanie (2): And oh I want to move you to the land space because this is where you feel most comfortable with. Earlier the way you describe about when you going underwater you get fascinated by just little patches of area. When you're on land and the scientist in you, how does that come into play?


And the scientist is going "what kind of tree is that?"; " I think those crabs might be migrating." " I wonder what the water quality is here" and just like a million questions all the time. And I think that's one of the great things about having scientific training is that you appreciate the worlds in a different way because you've been trained to do it. But you also are always asking questions about the world. No one will ever know everything. And so you're always just like the tip of the iceberg about the things I know, but I also know there's so many other really interesting things to know, and like, how do I start to get there?

For example, when I climb, I always say this and I am a terrible person for not doing the thing I keep saying I will do or I should do every time I go climbing. I wish I knew more about Geology. I've always studied living things. I studied the animals and I study how they live in the world and I study how the world affects them.

When you climb, you have your hand on literally the history of the Planet Earth. These are the rocks and the soils and everything else that's mark the history of our planet. And I always wish when I go to places that I understood better, because geologists can read rock, they can look at it and go, "oh, you can see where this moved and this twisted and this stood up". I always wish I could do that. So that's an area of knowledge I wish I knew better about. And I say it every time, I'm like, man, I wish I knew more geology. And I have yet to invest the time to get educated to the level I would like to be.

It's not just a scientist thing. I think anybody who has curiosity, when you have the chance to go to beautiful or interesting place, this is underwater, on the land, you just look at and see and have questions about what it is around you and what made it, what it is and what's happening.


[00:16:08] Margaret: Oh, that's a really good question. So my curiosity and my work have overlapped. That's been by choice. I've trained as a scientist because it was what I loved. I loved biology from when I was like 11 and only wanted to really work on that and have trained to do that and work on that and spend most of my life on that since I could do my education.

I'm generally curious about what's happening in the world to just to try and understand current events and all that kind of stuff. And current events and history and how they relate to each other. My father is a great scholar of history.

He will read these thousand page books on, pick a topic and he'll just spend a week and read a thousand pages on it. And then just keep doing that and just read a thousand more pages on something else. We'll talk about things and I'll say " dad, you look at reality and you go we've been through all this before history is constantly repeating, doesn't it make you nuts? but you've read about all this and it just keeps happening". And he's "no it's always a little different and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah". I try to keep that curiosity as well.

I've moved a little bit into the policy space, working in science policy. That's a little bit different than working on pure research. So a lot of what I'm working on now is understanding kind of how science is working in the world and how we can do things better critical and emerging technologies, things like that for the job I'm currently holding thing.

So a lot of, what I'm thinking about has to do with those kinds of topics. My training is in toxicology, so I work a lot on environmental pollution and an area that I've spent a lot of time on in the last five years or so maybe even six years is plastic pollution.

So I've spent a lot of time thinking about plastic and microplastic pollution. I was able to work on that in pretty big detail at my previous job, a little bit less so at my current job. But that's a topic that I'm really interested in. And then I keep trying to continue being educated about because there's a lot of really interesting research and policy happening in this


I go diving recently and then at one point literally my entire dive was picking up plastic bags, plastic whatever that was swimming in front of me. I was surrounded by a lot of plastic. And are there any policies or any latest technologies that's been developed and being tested that you're aware of, that actually been put in place to help to reduce this problem?


Although there are some applications for which plastics really are truly necessary. I would say things like in the medical field, though, there is a big push in medicine, too, in some areas to try to reduce the amount of plastics that are used because medical facilities, hospitals dispose of a ton of plastic.

That's not an actual unit. And not saying one time saying a lot of plastic daily, they're constantly running through, if you think about all of us buying gloves and masks during COVID and that was for most of us, the most contact we have with kind of personal protective equipment and other things.

So there are absolutely cases where plastic use is essential. But there's so much plastic overuse. And ultimately, the message you will often hear is people say if we just make like a biodegradable plastic, like then we'll solve all of our problem. To some extent. Yes.

The whole thought of what's biodegradable is really complicated because if you think about what's biodegradable in the Arctic and what's biodegradable in Hong Kong or in Singapore? Those are two such different conditions. What breaks down in humidity and sunlight? A lot of things do. What breaks down in ice and cold weather? Many fewer things.

So really thinking about like biodegradability is something that people are putting a lot of research into, because there's a key need for having some truly biodegradable in the environment. But as with all things you have to ask the question of, if it's biodegrading, what is it biodegrading to?

What's in it? When it breaks down, what does it break down to? I certainly had cases a few years ago where people would say, "oh, this is a biodegradable plastic". And then I remember watching a video and I said, " okay, but that just seems like it's just making microplastic. It's just breaking down to smaller plastic, but it's not breaking down."

It's just getting smaller and smaller is actually more difficult because although the task you were doing Stephanie to pick up bags is so important. And I'm so grateful that you were doing. It would be impossible for you to pick up microplastic in the same way.

You literally can't pick it up. It's too small. And so the degradability is key, but as you noted from your diving experiences, we already have a huge quantity of plastic in the ocean already. There have been estimates. It's enormous millions of tons of plastic in the world's oceans.

So we do need to stop the flow, turn off the tap. As people say, we need to reduce the plastic. That's going into the oceans. We need to do a very soon if not immediately, and I would argue immediately, but we also need to deal with what's there. So we even if we have new technology, that's going to help turn off the tap.

We still also need to be aware of what's already in the ocean because it's causing impacts. We know, for example, the big plastics, you mentioned plastic bags. We know that they can be very hazardous to different kinds of marine. Microplastics are a huge question mark in a lot of ways about impact.

Very hard to understand because they are so small. So we really need to think about. I mentioned this often: people are pretty familiar with the visual of a sea turtle wrapped in a fishing net. Everybody understands that like that's bad, that turtle is wrapped in that net, that turtle can't swim, that's a problem. We're less familiar with thinking about like a tiny shrimp that's wrapped in a plastic fiber. That's really hard to deal with. It's so small. How do we even know if that's happening? You have to get into the water and look very closely at these tiny little organisms to see how they're interacting with plastic.

So it's just more complicated. A lot of very smart, very talented people working on new plastics, working on understanding plastic impacts, working on policies. And there's a lot of things happening in this field. But the urgency is real, we need to stop pumping plastic into the ocean and that's what we're doing.

k through, let's say the year:

It's huge quantities. It's so terrible. You may know that a lot of the petrochem chemical companies or the oil producing companies have doubled plastic production. So they are not looking to stop making plastics. They're looking to continue it and if not, can just continue, but also increase. So we have increased production.

And without changing something on the policy front or on the way that we'll restorative implementing plastic use, it's just going to be the horrible numbers.

On the other hand, there's a lot of things that we can do to reduce plastic. And we all do this in our daily lives, I think, right?

We all I remembered Hong Kong very clearly. For a long time, nobody carried the reusable carry bag, a reusable shopping bag. And then everybody started carrying them and it became very common that you have your shopping bag in your bag. And when you need to buy something, you take it out and you put your stuff in and you take it home.

Same thing with the reusable water bottle. For a very long time, nobody used those and then it became very common. Everybody had their own and they would bring it. So these are just two examples, but there's a lot that can be done to substitute for things that are reusable and are not single use plastic.

Single use plastic is a huge contributor to plastic waste because you use it once and that's it. But then also again so substituting for that removing plastics that really don't need to be plastic, again, if there's something where it doesn't need to be made out of plastic, let's stop making it from that.

And then obviously policies at higher levels in government, in terms of what's allowed. So the EU, for example, has banned a number of single use plastics, straws, plastic bags, number of things. There's a lot of different things happening in the world to try to tackle this problem, but it is enormous. And it is urgent, but it also is one again that like each of us can make our contribution.

So for me, I am a big package observer. I'm always looking at packaging. " What's this? What is the same? Is it in paper? Is it in something else? Can I reuse this? Can I buy a different product that has different packaging? Can I buy a refillable? In the U.S. there're certain brands where you can buy refills of the same product and then read the bottle if it's easier to recycle. If the bottles are made of clear plastic and not dyed plastic, they're easier to recycle. So there's a lot of things and I can obviously talk about this for a long time.

I've worked on it for a while, and it is a problem I think is really complicated. It's really interesting. It's really challenging scientifically from a policy viewpoint as an environmental issue. So yeah, but let me stop there.


So I think it's a really long way. Just want to check with you. I'm just curious, because you mentioned that a lots of plastic pumped into the ocean and the ocean representing about 70% of the Planet Earth. So on balance, we also see plastics on land. Is this the current estimate that a lot more are in the ocean?


I have seen some for land. So one of the terms you'll hear when you hear about plastic pollution is this idea of mismanaged waste. It's something like you just said, it's trash on the side of the road. That waste has not been managed, if it's out in the environment, basically.

So the idea is that and I think a lot of people do think of this as well, if it's on the land, to an extent we can recover it, if it's on the roadway, you can go and pick it up. You had done some of that work underwater, you were taking out plastic bags. But of course the next tide comes in and there may be more plastic bags. And so it's not the same degree of control in the oceans as you might have on land. So I think most of the estimates have been done for the ocean. I do think it's much more in the oceans.

e scale, like starting around:

And so we really have been dumping plastic into the ocean probably since the 1950s. So we have, 70 years of plastic pollution floating around. And again, plastics degrade but they also don't depending on where they are. So we in theory have 70 years of accumulated plastics.

Whereas on land we've been, depending on where you live, maybe you landfill, maybe you incinerate, we've been managing the land waste a little bit, right? I'm not arguing that those are great ways to do it. Incineration has global warming and global climate change impacts. Landfills can be managed well, but to have to build them for that.

And older landfills were not built for that. So broadly speaking, we've had more ability to manage things on the land and have taken more of like just dump it out there and who cares approach to the oceans until more recently. So we do have the historic quantity of plastic in the ocean, and it's pretty much from since we started using it at a broader scale.


And it's also huge impact on the Climate change issue. The hot topics people talk about is net zero by 2050. So we're like 28 years or 27 and a half years to 2050 to net zero and in that process, we actually need to sort out this 70 years worth of rubbish, that being accumulated and changed the entire behavior. Yeah, you're right. We need to do that very soon. We can't just idle and do nothing, right?


The vast majority of plastics are not made from recycled material they're made from virgin plastic which are made from petroleum. So when we start to think about net zero, plastics have to come into that because they come from oil. And again, that's the reason that oil producers are choosing to ramp up production is because it's another way that they can use their resources and make profits off what they have.

So it really is a complex thing. For me, it comes down to just these issues that we see over and over again, of just how do we choose to live on our beautiful blue planet. Like how do we choose to live and plastic pollution and climate change, and all of these things are sort of part and parcel of that same issue. Do we choose to burn fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere? Do we choose to use plastics needlessly and have them be waste that basically covers the entire earth.

For macro plastics, the larger plastics, anyone who walks around in their neighborhood or works around anywhere, has observed that, yeah, you just find plastic rubbish everywhere. But in terms of microplastics, we have found them every single place we've looked; they're in the deep sea; they're in land; they're in soil; they're in air; they're in water; they're in seafood.

Again, like how do we choose to live? The price of the way we choose to live is that we have little plastic particles everywhere we look. So that sort of tells you, how do we start to make changes about that? And I think that's what a lot of the broader conversation is around environmental topics.

y post world war II, right in:

And now we see where we are, and it's not great in many ways.

But it's not unrecoverable, right? As you said yourself, we are nearing the finish line where the recovery has become impossible. The point is not that the earth will explode. The earth will not explode, but it will not be the beautiful planet that we know and that we love.

You and I have both had the experience Hong Kong is a wonderful place to train for diving. But Hong Kong is a very depressing place to dive.

There's places like Hoi Hai Wan, which is like the coral reserve and you can go and see beautiful coral but it's this tiny little patch of Hong Kong. In most cases, if there's a few pockets where it's really beautiful, but most of it has been trawled. Most of it's damaged. And it hurts, it hurts when you go and dive in, you see the bottom's been trolled with nets and, everything's been fished.

And again, in Hong Kong, they've had the trawling band and they aren't trawling the waters the same way in theory, there can be recovery, but it takes a long time. There has to be a lot of effort behind it. So it comes down to how do we choose to live?


[00:30:46] Margaret: Sure. Microplastics are defined as plastic particles, smaller than five millimetres in any one dimension. At the largest end of the size range, they're about the size of a pencil eraser on the end of your pencil. The smallest is only visible with a microscope.

So if we get down into the nanoscale, that's extremely small. So microplastics in our lives, probably, yes, as you said exactly, so in synthetic fabrics, when you wash your clothing in the washing machine and the clothing is moving around, you have fibres that are coming out of your clothing and they leave your washing machine when the water is drained out into your sewage system or wherever the water goes. That water then contains microplastic fibres.

In many parts of the world, many countries have started to ban the microbeads for face washes, body scrubs, these kinds of things.

One of the big challenge we have with microplastics is that we don't always know where they're used. For example, I've heard reports that they also may be added to your laundry detergent for abrasive function to be a stronger cleaner. I don't want plastics in my laundry detergent, but again, I was never given the choice.

One of the real challenges is just to understand where they're used because there is no labeling requirement. Generally speaking with microplastics, basically anything you own that's made of plastic or synthetic material when it wears over time, when you use it is going to generate microplastics.

Because it's so small, capturing and controlling microplastic can be very difficult. I use the example of your washing machine. So the water that leaves your washing machine goes to a wastewater treatment plant. If you're lucky to live in a country where wastewater treatment is broadly implemented and we know wastewater treatment plants can be pretty effective at removing microplastics.

The question again, and I would usually ask this question on my students when I was teaching at my university in Hong Kong, I would always ask them. Okay. But when you hear " oh, that gets removed or that gets recovered", but then the next question you should ask is okay, but where does it go? So like for wastewater in the U.S. a lot of wastewater treatment plants, the microplastics end up in the wastewater, like solids, and then those are used in agriculture. Instead of being in water, now, the microplastic is in soil and it's still in the environment, just in a different part of the environment. We have to really think a lot about what's the nature of the problem. Where are they generated? Where are these things going? If we wanna think about solutions, one easy one is "don't put sewage sludges on your field as fertilizer". Don't do that. Just a bad idea.

And some countries have banned that the U.S. is not one of them. From an environmental science, from a policy, from a natural impact, from a risk assessment, all of these perspectives, as I said I could talk about it forever.


And those teeny weeny nano size they get eaten by animal. It's basically recycled back to our own food system. What we consume as well. Actually that reminds me, you are vegetarian and that was by choice. How did you make this choice to be a vegetarian?


I've always loved animals. One of the things that really pushed me to the full vegetarianism was I worked at a zoo in my college years. I was a zookeeper for a year and a half. And since I worked in the summer full time, they were like, "okay, where is it that she can cause the least amount of trouble at the zoo." They're like, "okay, we'll send her to the farm yard with all the farm animals because they're not tigers or bears or anything. If they get out, it's no big deal." So I spent a lot of time in the farm yard with pigs and cows and sheep and all that stuff.

I have relatives who are farmers and who raised sheeps and then can happily eat them and have no problem with it. And I also have no problem with it. But for me personally, I couldn't stare a pig in the face and then go home and eat bacon. I just couldn't do it.

So for me, it ended up being a personal thing. I had loved studying biology and studying the living things on this earth. Since I first started to learn about it in middle school. And that's for me, I think part of it is appreciating that life is not consuming it unless I have to.

If we end up at a zombie apocalypse, the situation and I need to consume meat, I'm sure I will make my peace with it. But, until we reach the zombie apocalypse, I feel better not consuming animals on purpose.


[00:35:28] Margaret: I've tried to read about other people's experience. For me, I think the only times I really missed meat were when I was really hungry and I'd be leaving my high school and they would be the Greek soup corgi carts, like outside my high school and they'd be frying beef. And I would just smell it and be like, "oh, it smells so good". But most of the time, I didn't miss it. I really didn't.

I know there are some people when they try to switch to becoming vegetarian, they really have health challenges. It all depends on kind of your individual biochemistry and your metabolism. So I applaud anyone who is looking to Meatless Mondays and Green Mondays became a thing in Hong Kong before I left, " let's do one day a week where we all eat vegetarian."

What I would say is, again, don't get attached to the purity of it. If being a hundred percent vegetarian, doesn't make you feel healthy and it doesn't make you feel good. And all you do is miss meat. That's not the right choice for you.

But you can make other choices again reduce the consumption, look for pasture raised, or, the cases where animals were treated humanely before they were killed. In cases where, look for supporting local farms, so you're reducing greenhouse gases that are being generated when you ship foods long distances.

There's a lot of ways I think, to minimize your impact on the world through your diet, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to go full vegetarian. So I think my main message is my own insight is just I think all of us benefit when we know more about where our food comes from.

Whether that changes how you eat or not. I think we all do better when we know, who's making our food. Where does it come from? How are those animals treated? What pesticides are used? Without getting too complicated, we all do better for ourselves.

A little bit of that curiosity. Like where does my food come from? There was some really great videos on Twitter where some of the farmer collectives in California, as you may know, is a huge farming state in the United States. They have all kinds of crops that they farm. They supply themselves and then large parts of the country. And they did a video basically asking people to ask them questions ask about a certain kind of produce and I'll tell you about it.

Say I want to know about artichokes and they'd say, okay, artichokes. Here's how we grow artichokes. Here's how we pick them. Here's who picks them. Here's what kind of work it takes to pick them. And it was really illuminating for me to see " oh, this is the kind of effort and work to pick this vegetable that I like to eat." I want to be more aware of what that means and maybe support people's right to have job protections and things. When they're doing this very difficult work, that's getting me to vegetables I like. That's just part of the bigger thing of just like becoming more informed on, again, I don't need to be a broken record, but how we choose to live.

So again, it doesn't mean you need to be a vegetarian if it's not right for you, but I think just being aware of sort of the choices, how the choices that you make impacts the world. I think we just do better. It doesn't mean you have to change everything in your life, but it means you maybe think about things a little bit differently,


I really love that. Thank you.


[00:38:16] Stephanie (2): You have just been listening to " Surface Time, Confessions of a Diving Junkie". My guest today was Margaret Murphy, who always makes me feel smarter after each chat with her wealth of insight. In particular, if we want to live a life where our blue planet remains a beautiful place or even better, we need to do our part in dealing with climate emergency, starting from right now.

In the follow up episode, you will hear more from Mag answering the five insightful questions that I ask all my guests.

Surface Time executively produced by Noetic Production and music by Dredstudio.

If you have enjoyed our Surface Time chat, please show us some love and subscribe. And if you would like to share your stories on Surface Time, we would love to hear from you. Please email us to

About the Podcast

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Surface Time with Stephanie
Confessions of a Diving Junkie

About your host

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Stephanie Luo

Hello, I am a certified NAUI Instructor. My intention to produce "Surface Time - Confessions of a Diving Junkie" is partly to raise awareness of serious matters like climate change, sustainable living and marine conservation through fun, interesting and entertaining stories.

It is also my intention that through these dialogues, you will get new inspirations and perspective about life. Hopefully, you will make the changes for yourself.

I teach scuba in private class set up (i.e. no more than 2 students at a time), for new diver and for advanced divers looking to progress further. To me, it is important to anchor good diving practice and mindset in your core system.

So, if you want to learn scuba diving or go diving with me, free to contact me.
Also drop me a message, if you want to share your stories on Surface Time.

or DM to @surfacetimechats on Instagram or Facebook.