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?
- 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:
- a) choose not to use straws when eating out.
- 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.
- 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.
- If possible, wear clothing made of natural fibers.
Being aware of the microplastic problem is the first step in correcting it.
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.
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
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
- Bury it
- Burn it
- 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:
- Paper/cardboard – 37%
- Yard waste – 12%
- Food – 11%
- Plastics – 11%
- 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.
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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.
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!
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
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:
- Consumption by plankton give the sensation of being full – thus they stop eating.
- A decrease in the reproductive success of oysters.
- Negative impacts on hatching rates and activity rates of some species of larval fish, making them more prone to predation.
- 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
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.
The red area indicates where dissolved oxygen levels are low.
I don’t want this to sound like a “Debbie Downer”… but there are problems with our estuaries and panhandle residents should be aware of them. There are things you can do to correct them – which we will discuss in the final issues of this series – but you need to understand the problem to be able to solve it. Unfortunately there are many issues and problems our bays and bayous face and we do not have time in this short article to discuss them all, but we will discuss some.
We’ll start at the top… with our rivers. Since the founding of our nation many communities were built on estuaries; those that were not were built on the rivers. Water was an easy way to move throughout the country – much easier than wagon crossing over the Appalachians or through a bog. There are several communities that developed along the rivers that feed the panhandle bays. Though the situation has improved in the last few decades, most of these communities have used these rivers as a place to dump their waste. Assorted chemicals, sewage, and solid waste were discharged… and it all came down to us. The Mississippi River is an example of this problem. Discovered in the 1990’s the Louisiana Dead Zone is an area in the Gulf where the levels of dissolved oxygen are so low that little or no life can be found on the ocean floor there. It is believed to be trigger by nutrients, chemical fertilizers and animal waste, being discharged upstream. These nutrients create a bloom of plankton, which can darken the water. Though the phytoplankton can produce oxygen during the daylight hours, they consume it in the evening, lowering the concentration of dissolved oxygen within the water column. The plankton are relatively short lived and eventually die. As the dead plankton fall out to the seafloor bacteria begin to decompose their bodies thus dropping the dissolved oxygen levels further. When the dissolved oxygen concentrations drop below 4.0 millgrams/liter we say the water is hypoxic (low in oxygen). Many species of aquatic organisms begin to stress. At 2.0 mg/L many species will die and we have a “dead zone”. If it reaches 0.0 mg/L we say the water is anoxic (without oxygen). This process is called eutrophication and not only a problem at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it occurs in almost all of the bays and bayous of the panhandle and is the primary cause of local fish kills.
A more recent issue with our rivers has been the reduction of water. In the so called “Water Wars” the state of Georgia has used its damn system to block the flow of the Chattahoochee River to create electricity and a reservoir of drinking water for river communities. Under normal conditions this has not created a problem however in recent years the southeast has experienced drought and the state of Georgia has had the need to hold back water for large communities – such as Atlanta. This has reduced the amount of water flowing towards the Gulf and has impacted communities all along the way. It is not the only issue but is the primary factor triggering the collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola. The reduced freshwater flow has increased salinities in the bay. This has disrupted the life cycle of the eastern oyster and has increased both predation and disease within these populations. Apalachicola produces over 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the oysters for the entire country! Oysters are a huge industry in this town. Many are oystermen and many others process the product when it is landed… the industry is on the verge of collapsing. (Learn more).
Oysterman on Apalachicola Bay.
Photo: Sea Grant
These are just some the issues stemming from the rivers… what about the issues initiated from the communities that live along the bay…
How about the seafood? We discussed the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay but oyster production in other local bays has declined as well (for other reasons). Scallops are gone from many of their historic estuaries, shrimp and blue crab landings are down, this year mullet seem to be hard to find. What is going on here? For the most part the decline in seafood products can be tied to either a decline in water quality or from over harvesting. The harvesting issue is easy… do not harvest as much. However these fisheries management decisions impact many lives and has caused a lot of debate. First you need to determine whether the decline is due to overharvesting or some other environmental factor… easier said than done. Certainly the biology of your target species will give you an idea of how many animals you can remove from the system and sustain a healthy population (maximum sustainable yield) but this method has triggered debate as well. Most fishermen do not want to see the fishery collapse and are willing to work with fishery managers to assure this – but they do have bills to pay. Fishery managers have a responsibility to assure the fishery remain for current and future generations of fishermen and they are basing their decisions on the best available science. It is a touchy subject for many and a problem within our estuaries.
The other cause of declining seafood is poor water quality. You can talk to any “ole timer” and they will tell you about the days when the water was clearer, the grass was thicker, and the fish were more abundant… what happen? I spoke with my father-in-law before he passed away about the changes he saw in Bayou Texar in Pensacola. He remembers being able to see the bottom, more seagrass, and being able to catch a variety of finfish as well as shrimp the size of your hand. The first change he remembered was a change in water clarity… it became murkier… and this happen about the time they began to develop the east side of the bayou. As our communities grew more land was cleared for development. The cleared land allowed more runoff to reach the creeks, bayous, and bays. Infrastructure had to be placed to reduce flooding of yards and streets – Bayou Texar has 38 storm drains. All of this led to more runoff into our water ways. With the increase in turbidity the amount of sunlight reaching the bottom was reduced and seagrasses began to decline. Many species of seagrass require salinities of 25 parts per thousand or higher and the increase in freshwater runoff lowered the salinity which also stressed these grasses. Much of this runoff included sand and silt and the grasses were basically buried. All in all seagrasses declined… and with them many of the marine creatures. Salt marshes were removed for coastal developments, industries were located on our rivers and bays and introduced their chemical discharge, and boating activity increased… our estuaries were being literally “loved to death”. I have seen in my lifetime the decline of sea urchins and scallops from our bay, the increase in turbidity, and the decline of seagrasses. But we cannot blame all of this on habitat loss and pollution. Speaking recently with fisheries managers they believe the recent decline in blue crab landings is due to drought. Reduction in rainfall means reduction in river discharge, which means an increase in salinity and a disruption of the crab reproductive cycle.
Power plant on one of the panhandle estuaries.
Another problem that is associated with runoff has been the increase in bacteria. Fecal coliform bacteria are found in the stomachs of birds and mammals. They assist with our digestion and are released into the environment whenever we (or they) go to the bathroom. So finding fecal coliforms in the water is not unusual… the problem is TOO many fecal coliforms. As mentioned coliforms are not a threat to us but they are used as an indicator of how much waste is in the water. Feces harbors many other microbes in addition to coliforms – hepatitis and cholera outbreaks have been linked to sewage in the water. So agencies monitor for these each week. Most agencies will monitor for E. coli when sampling freshwater and Enterococcus in saline waters. E. coli values of 800 colonies / 100 milliters of sample or higher, and Enterococcus values of 104 colonies / 100 ml of sample will trigger a health advisory being issued – and some bodies of water being closed. In the Pensacola area the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Escambia County Health Department both monitor for bacteria. They post their results each week and I, in turn, post to the community. Our local bayous are averaging between 8-10 advisories each year. The problem with these advisories is that residents who live on the waterways, businesses (such as hotels and ecotours) who use the waterways become concerned about entering the water. It is not good for business or property values if the body of water you are on has high levels of bacteria and signs posting “no swimming”.
Closed due to bacteria.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
There are many problems our estuaries are facing but for this article we will end with solid waste. Trash and garbage has been a problem since I can remember. Campaigns have been launched each decade to try and reduce the problem but the problem still exist. Plastics and monofilament litter the beaches and waterways creating problems for marine life and an “eye soar” for those enjoying the bay. I am currently working with the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida and CleanPeace to monitor solid waste in Pensacola Bay. Each week CleanPeace host a Saturday event they call “Ocean Hour” where they select a location on the bay and clean for an hour. They submit the top three items to me each week and have been doing this since January… it has been pretty consistent… cigarette butts, plastic food wrappers, and plastic drink containers. We are not going to get rid of garbage on our beaches but if we can consistently reduce the “top three” we should be able to reduce the problem.
More on what we can do to help in the final issue.