Plastic has consistently comprised a majority of the litter found on the beaches of New Jersey. In 2015, Clean Ocean Action’s Beach Sweep data quantified the amount of plastic present on beaches as approximately 71.6% of the total litter collected. Why are plastics such an issue for our waterways? The main issue is that plastics do not biodegrade, instead they photodegrade into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm and are of particular concern because of the threat they pose to marine life, who often mistakes these plastic particles for food. The primary source of microplastics originates from personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes. Other sources include larger plastics that have photodegraded and microfibers that are the result of washing clothing made of synthetic materials. Due to their small size, microplastic pieces bypass wastewater treatment plant filters and are discharged into our waterways.
Microplastic pollution is currently at the forefront of international concern because of the threat it poses to marine life and, consequently, human life. Marine organisms that comprise the base of the marine food web (zooplankton and phytoplankton) ingest these particles. Since these plastics cannot be digested they travel up the food chain. This is where the danger for humans arises. Microplastics are hotbeds for the accumulation of toxins. What may start out as a small concentration biomagnifies as it travels up the food chain because larger organisms need to consume larger amounts of food. The seafood lover’s menu has the potential to be laden with toxins as a result of microplastic pollution.
A major victory for our ocean occurred in 2015 when President Obama signed the “Microbead-Free Waters Act,” which bans the manufacture of microbeads in July 2017. Until then, it is important to be an informed consumer and avoid products that still contain microbeads. When purchasing products, look for and avoid the ingredients polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl, methacrylate, nylon and polylactic acid. Try using exfoliants with natural ingredients such as coffee, cocoa, apricot seeds, sugar and salt.
As the Marine Debris intern at Clean Ocean Action I am working alongside staff members to help better understand and promote the issues of microplastic pollution in our waterways. Clean Ocean Action is working with students from the Marine Academy of Science and Technology as well as scientists from NOAA on a microplastics research project that will quantify the amount of microplastics present in the New York-New Jersey area. Sand and water samples taken along the coast are being analyzed using pre-tested research methods. Another essential component of the microplastics program is public outreach. Part of my job is assisting with Corporate Beach Sweeps, where we highlight the issues of microplastic pollution to volunteers. A social media campaign in conjunction with the US EPA’s Trash Free Waters initiative was launched the week of World Oceans’ Day (6/6/2016-6/12/16). Throughout Microplastics Awareness Week, Clean Ocean Action is educating the public on these issues via social media. Join us and promote a clean ocean! Share our infographics and posts with your friends and family. Together we can create trash free waters!
Marine Debris Intern