Microplastics Awareness Month

Microplastics Awareness Month

It is an amazing product actually… plastic.  It can be molded into all sorts of shapes and forms.  In some cases, it can be more durable than other products, it is lighter and cheaper than many.  Slowly over time, we began to use more and more of it.  I remember as a kid in the ‘60s Tupperware products were common.  Cups and bowls with resealable lids.  Coffee cups followed, then 2-Liter coke bottles, to the common water bottle we see today.  As I look around the room, I am in right now there are plastic pens, picture frames, suntan lotion bottles, power cords, rain jacket, the cover and keyboard of this laptop.  Plastic is part of our lives.

A variety of plastics ends up in the Gulf. Each is a potential problem for marine life. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Unfortunately, being relatively inexpensive, it is also easily disposed of.  Many forms of plastic are one-time use.  In some cases, we purchase and discard them without really using them – plastic wrap covering fruit, or the famous plastic grocery bags.  Most of this discarded plastic eventually finds its way into the environment.  Data from the 2017 International Coastal Clean Up, showed that globally all the top 10 items collected were plastic.  Most of it was cigarette butts and items related to food and drink.  Even with all the press, the number of plastic grocery bags collected actually increased.  One study conducted in 2015 estimated the amount of plastic in our oceans would be enough to fill 5 plastic grocery bags for each foot of shoreline of the 192 countries they surveyed.

 

There is a lot of plastic out there.  One researcher commented… it’s all still there.  Some have estimated that plastic takes about 600 years to completely break down.  Plastic items degrade while exposed to sun, sand, and saltwater.  But they never go away.  They become smaller and smaller to a point where you cannot even see them anymore – these are called MICROPLASTICS.

 

Microplastics are defined as any plastic items 5mm or smaller in diameter.  Most plastics float, and most microplastics float as well, but pieces of microplastics have been found throughout the water column and even in the deep-sea sediments.  They come in two forms; primary and secondary.

“Nurdle” are primary microplastics that are produced to stuff toys and can be melt down to produce other products.
Photo: Maia McGuire

Primary microplastics are plastics that are produced at these small sizes.  All plastic products begin as small beads called nurdles.  Nurdles are produced and shipped to manufacturing centers where they are melted down and placed into forms which produce car bumpers, notebook covers, and water bottles.  Many of these nurdles are shipped via containers and spills occur.  Other primary microplastics are microbeads.  These are used in shampoo, toothpaste, and other products to make them sparkle, or add color.  As they are washed down our sinks and showers, they eventually make their way into the environment.  Sewage treatment facilities are designed to remove them.

 

Secondary microplastics are those they were originally macroplastics and have been broken down by the elements.  Plastic fragments and fibers are two of the more common forms of secondary microplastics.  These micro-fibers make up 70-80% of the microplastics volunteers find in Florida waters.  Many of these fibers come from our clothing, from cigarette butts, and other sources.

 

Are these microplastics causing a problem?

 

It is hard to say whether they have caused the decline in populations of any group of marine organisms, but we do know they are absorbing them.  Studies have found microscopic plankton have ingested them, and some have ceased to feed until they pass them, if they do pass them.  There has been concerned with the leaching of certain products in plastic to make them more flexible in bottled water.  These products have been found in both plankton and in whales.

The most common form of microplastic are fibers.
Photo: UF IFAS St. Johns County

Another problem are the toxic compounds already in seawater.  Compounds such as PCBs, PAHs, and DDT.  It has been found that these compounds adhere to microplastics.  Thus, if marine organisms consume (or accidentally ingest) these microplastics, the concentrations of these toxins are higher than they would be if the microplastics were not present.

 

Studies have shown:

–          Pacific oysters had decreased egg production and sperm motility, fewer larvae survived, and the survivors grew more slowly than those in the control population.

–          Plastic leachate impaired development of brown mussel larvae.

–          Shore crabs fed microplastics consumed less food over time.

A recent summer research project at the University of West Florida found microplastics within the gut and tissues of all seafood products purchased in local seafood markets.  And recently a study of human stool samples from volunteers in Europe and Japan found microplastics in us.  Again, we are not sure of the impact on our health from this, but they are there.

 

So, what do we do?

 

One idea is to remove these microplastics from the ocean – skimming or filtering somehow.  As you might guess, this also removes much needed phytoplankton and zooplankton.

 

There is the ole “Recycle, Reuse, Reduce” idea we learned when we were in school.  Unfortunately, recycling plastic has not been working well.  Being a petroleum product, the price of oil can dictate the price of recycled plastic.  With low oil prices comes low recycling profits.  In many cases it can be cheaper to produce and purchase new plastic products.  Also, unlike glass, plastic can only be recycled so many times.

Boxes providing garbage bags and disposal.
Photo: Pensacola Beach Advocates

Reuse and reduce may be the better options.  If you must purchase plastic items, try to reuse them.  In many cases this is difficult and the reduce method is the better option.  Reduce the purchase of plastic items such as your own drinking container instead of using the one-time plastic cup at meetings or events.  And of course, reusable grocery bags.  You will have to think on how to reduce some items, but most can be done.

 

There are numerous more suggestions, and more information, on Dr. Maia McGuire’s Flagler County Extension website – http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/flagler/marine-and-coastal/microplastics/.

 

Help make others more aware of microplastics during Microplastics Awareness Month.

Microplastics Awareness Month

Microplastics Awareness Month

For almost 40 years, the Ocean Conservancy has held the International Coastal Cleanup in September. Across the planet hundreds of thousands of volunteers clean marine debris from their shorelines.  The data collected is used by local agencies to manage this problem; such as discontinuing the use of pull tops from aluminum cans.  In the last couple of years researchers are trying to make the public aware of another form of plastic most know little about – microplastics.

“Nurdle” are primary microplastics that are produced to stuff toys and can be melt down to produce other products.
Photo: Maia McGuire

Microplastics are defined as pieces measuring 5 mm in length or smaller. These can be large pieces of common plastics that been degraded by sea and sun.  They can be small pellets called nurdles that are melted down and poured into molds to produce common plastic products or used to stuff toys.  They can also be small beads used as fillers in personal care products, such as toothpaste.  Those that are manufactured at this size are called primary microplastics; those that degrade to this size are secondary microplastics.

 

How Do They Find Their Way to Local Waterways?

 

The sources of secondary microplastics is obvious. We either intentional or unintentionally discard our waste into the environment.  According to data collected by the local nonprofit group Ocean Hour, cigarette butts are the number item collected during weekly cleanups.  Many are not aware that much of the material in a cigarette butt is actually plastic fibers, and many butts are tossed to the ground intentionally.  Adhered to these fibers are the products of smoke we are concerned with in our own health – tar, nicotine, and ethylphenol.

 

Ocean Hours data show other forms of plastics (bags, wrappers, cups, bottles, and caps) are very common. These items are discarded directly, or indirectly, into the environment and eventually end up in our bays and oceans – “all drains lead to sea kid”.  Here they are eventually broken down.  Some scientists believe all the plastic ever produced is still in the sea, continuing to breakdown smaller but never really going away.  I viewed a webinar within the last year where a researcher from the west coast was discussing the “great plastic island” in the Pacific.  She showed a photo from the location and you did not really see a lot of large plastic drifting.  However, a plankton tow revealed large amounts of microplastics.

Marine debris collected by Ocean Hour during the first half of 2017.
Image: Ethan Barker

Less common are the primary microplastics… but they are there. According to our monitoring in the Pensacola Bay Area, they make up about 20% of the microplastics found.  When we wash our faces, or brush our teeth, with plastic filled products these microplastics are washed down the drain to the local sewer treatment facility.  Here they remain on the surface of the water that is being treated and are eventually discharged into wetlands, or directly into a water body.

 

Are These Microplastics Having a Negative Impact on the Environment?

 

Locally, we are monitoring 22 stations. We are finding an average of 9 pieces of microplastic / 100ml of sample (little more than 3 ounces).  This equates to a lot of microplastic in our bay. Science does know that these are small enough to be swallowed by zooplankton in our water column.  It plugs their digestive tract and gives them the sensation of being full.  Thus, they stop eating and starve.  A decline zooplankton, a key component of most aquatic food chains, could affect economically important members higher up the food chain.

 

Laboratory studies show it may be affecting lower on the food web. When subjected to water containing microplastics, the microalgae Chorella reduced its uptake of carbon dioxide; thus reducing photosynthesis.

 

In larger species, microplastics have been found in the tissue of some bivalves, including those commercially harvested for human consumption. There is little evidence connecting health related problems of either the bivalve or the human consumer, to microplastic consumption – but there is concern.

 

There is evidence showing chemical contaminants adhere to the plastics and can increase their concentrations 1 million times. Swallowing plastics with high concentrations of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and DDT (all of which have been found on microplastics) could be problematic.

 

There is also concern of bioaccumulation of these contaminants as they move through the food chain, but little evidence that it does. There is also little research on the leaching of toxic products from these plastics and their impacts.  In his recent publication on the status of water quality in Pensacola Bay, Dr. Mike Lewis agrees that more attention needs to be paid to microplastics.

These microfibers are from the inside of cigarette butts and a common form of microplastic in our waters.
Photo: Maia Mcguire

What Can We Do About the Microplastic Issue?

 

  1. Cut back on your use of plastics. Easier said than done, our world is full of plastic, but there are a few things you can do:
  2. a) choose not to use straws when eating out.
  3. b) purchase a good water bottle and take it with you. Many locations where we purchase coffee or fountain drinks you can use this bottle instead of their foam or plastic cups.

 

  1. Change your habits and product choices.

Personal care products with microplastics will have polyethylene on the ingredient label; if it does – choose a different one. There is a website that lists many of these products.

Http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov.

 

  1. If possible, wear clothing made of natural fibers.

 

Being aware of the microplastic problem is the first step in correcting it.

 

 

References

 

Unpublished data analyzed by the Escambia County Division of Marine Resources and Florida Sea Grant.

 

Yang, Y., I.A. Rodriguez-Jorquera, M. McGuire, G.S. Toor. 2015. Contaminants in the Urban Environment: Microplastics.  Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS). 6 pages. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/SS/SS64900.pdf.

Lending a Helping Hand after Irma, Harvey, and other Hurricanes

 

In the photo is a Houston area home with storm damage after hurricane Harvey . There are plenty of ways to help. See volunteer and donation opportunities at www.nvoad.org/voad-members/national-members . Photo by Christy Volanski.

Recent images of hurricane Irma and Harvey’s devastating impacts remind all of us living along the Gulf just how powerful tropical cyclones can be. There’s a Gulf of Mexico kinship we all feel. Even more today since Irma has put our Florida homes and cities in the news just like Harvey did a few days ago in Texas.

Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, and Ike are names that conjure personal memories of past storms that I’ve lived through and helped others recover from. Every storm’s impact and response is different but the main question is always the same, “What can I do to help?”

Help is the keyword. Showing up in a disaster area without a plan, without training, or without the support of a recognized and welcomed organization is potentially risky. Rogue, unaffiliated volunteers put themselves and others at risk by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just showing up is not help but compounds emergency recovery efforts.

Donating money is the best method to quickly provide resources where they are needed the most. Donating the wrong items can burden damaged communities and waste efforts. A better place to start to help is Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster or VOAD for short, http://NVOAD.org . VOAD includes well known response organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and other non-profit or faith-based organizations which specialize in community disaster recovery. You can visit their webpage to donate to specific recovery efforts and to learn about volunteer opportunities. VOAD organizations support volunteers with training, coordination with emergency managers, and often provide volunteers with some types of work insurance coverage. Similar opportunities and information can also be found with Volunteer Florida at https://www.volunteerflorida.org/irma

The severe impacts from Irma and Harvey will extend recovery for several years, so there will be ample opportunity for individuals to help immediately and into the foreseeable future. Harvey’s flooding reminds me of Katrina. I volunteered months after the storm with a faith-based organization to help rebuild a church in St. Bernard Parish. This church became a focal point to help distribute clothing, food and other resources as local families recovered. Another time we assisted flood victims on the Wakulla River, volunteering with the Salvation Army. This organization provided us with training and support as we helped with mud-outs, removing sediment flooded homes. Look for similar opportunities in responding to Harvey and Irma. These are just two examples of many ways you can help make a difference.

Now is the perfect time to contact one of the VOAD organizations or with Volunteer Florida if you are interested in volunteering. Floodwaters will soon crest, safe access will be restored, and assessments will be completed. As a result, restoration efforts will be prioritized, timed, and coordinated to meet local needs. Quality trained volunteers are needed to help life return to normal. You can be the answer to prayers all across the Gulf.

The International Coastal Clean Up is Coming in September – how are we doing with marine debris in our area?

The International Coastal Clean Up is Coming in September – how are we doing with marine debris in our area?

People have been trying to do something about marine debris, and solid waste in general, since we saw the commercial of the crying Indian in the early ‘70’s. Have we made any improvement?

A variety of plastics ends up in the Gulf. Each is a potential problem for marine life. Photo: Rick O'Connor

A variety of plastics ends up in the Gulf. Each is a potential problem for marine life. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Yes… but there are still problems to deal with.

 

Literally millions of tons of solid waste are produced and disposed of each year. According to the 16th edition of Living in the Environment by G. Tyler Miller and Scott Spoolman (2011), Americans generate 2.5 million tons of solid waste each year.  This total could fill enough garbage trucks to circle the earth 8 times – bumper to bumper.  Though we only make up 4.6% of the world’s population we generate 33% of world’s solid waste.  Scientists have been recommending that we reduce the amount of solid waste we produce for some time… but we are not.

 

So what are we going to do about the problem?

 

Well, if you are not going to reduce the amount generated you have basically three choices

  1. Bury it
  2. Burn it
  3. Recycle it

Currently Americans are burying about 54% of their solid waste, 25% is recycled, 14% is incinerated, 7% is composted. Comparing our recycling efforts to other nations we are not doing too bad, but there is room for improvement – there is actually a need to improve.  The majority of the solid waste we throw away actually ends up in the environment.  It has been determined that 80% of the plastics in the ocean come from land – and much of this was thrown in the trash by people who were doing the right thing.

 

To reduce waste, we need to know what it is we are throwing away. According to Miller and Spoolman the top five items we throw away are:

  1. Paper/cardboard – 37%
  2. Yard waste – 12%
  3. Food – 11%
  4. Plastics – 11%
  5. Metal – 8%

Most of these can be recycled or composted – should be easy – but we are not doing it as often as we should.

 

What about local marine debris?

 

I have been working with the local group OCEAN HOUR.  Ocean Hour cleans a shoreline somewhere in the Escambia / Santa Rosa area every weekend (check out their Facebook page or the Escambia County Extension website to know where).  Volunteers come out to help remove the waste and Ocean Hour provides buckets, tongs, and gloves for them to do so.  Sea Grant, Escambia County, and students from local schools help to gather data from what they are collecting.

 

TOP FIVE ITEMS 2015 2016

 

1 Cigarette butts Cigarette butts

 

2 Food wrappers Foam

 

3 Plastic bottles Plastic bottles

 

4 Plastic pieces Glass bottles

 

5 Foam Food wrappers

 

 

Plastics

There has been a lot of concern about plastics in the environment. Paper, food, and yard waste are oxygen demanding waste, and need to be reduced, but their life span in the ocean is much shorter than plastic.  Plastics are made using large polymers produced while refining oil and natural gas.  There are about 46 different types and many products are a mix of different polymers.  This actually makes some forms difficult, and costly, to recycle.  Most counties can recycle #1 and #2 forms of plastic.  Water bottles are made from a form of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  These are easier and less costly to recycle than some other forms but they must be disposed of separately.  One PVC bottle in a truck load of plastic water bottles will keep the entire truck load from being recycled.

Trash 1

Another issue, which you will be hearing more about this month, are microplastics.  Much of the plastic that reaches the ocean will break down due the sun and the ocean elements.  These bring on their own problems – read more about microplastics on this website or the link above.

 

We certainly encourage all folks who live in the panhandle, or who are visiting, to reduce the amount of solid waste they generate – recycle or compost what you can – and participate in community cleans ups – such as those put on by Ocean Hour.  The International Coastal Clean Up will be September 17.  Check the Escambia County website for locations.  We can do this!

September is Microplastics Awareness Month

September is Microplastics Awareness Month

Going along with the International Coastal Clean Up, UF/IFAS Extension will be promoting September as Microplastics Awareness month.

The most common form of microplastic are fibers. Photo: UF IFAS St. johns County

The most common form of microplastic are fibers.
Photo: UF IFAS St. johns County

If you have not heard, microplastics are small pieces of plastic < 5mm in diameter. Some are fragments from larger pieces of plastic that have been broken down by the elements, others are produced at that size to be used in products such as stuffed animals or melted in molds to produce larger products.  Some microplastics are small beads used in cosmetics, but the most common are fibers from our linens and clothing.  These fibers are removed during washing and travel through the drain and sewer systems until the reach the sea.  Either way – they end up in our coastal waterways where they have had some negative impacts on marine life.

 

Some impacts include:

  1. Consumption by plankton give the sensation of being full – thus they stop eating.
  2. A decrease in the reproductive success of oysters.
  3. Negative impacts on hatching rates and activity rates of some species of larval fish, making them more prone to predation.
  4. They have also been found to be more common in sea salt and have been found in the guts of some fish and bivalves sold at seafood markets on the west coast. We are not sure of the impact of human consumption of these products.
Small microbeads called "nurdles" are used to fill stuffed animals and to make larger plastic products. Photo: UF IFAS St. Johns County

Small microbeads called “nurdles” are used to fill stuffed animals and to make larger plastic products.
Photo: UF IFAS St. Johns County

During the month of September, we will be posting short articles on our Facebook pages and on Panhandle Outdoors. Extension will also host a webinar on the topic September 16.  It will be broadcast from 12:15 to 1:00 PM EDT. To register for this webinar go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/whats-the-big-deal-with-microplastics-webinar-tickets-27070847634.  Please like and share these with your friends so that we can make more people aware of this problem.  If you would like to have a public presentation on microplastics, contact your county Extension office.  Check in on these posts throughout the month.

 

http://facebook.com/NEFLSeaGrant

https://www.facebook.com/MicroplasticAwarenessProject

www.plasticaware.org