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Plastic in Paradise Part II: Microplastics

January 1st, 2018

plastic shard Plastic in Paradise Part II: Microplastics

Colorful, tiny and abundant, microplastics enter the marine system as fragments, film, fiber and microbeads and may stay in the ocean for thousands of years. (Photo courtesy University of Florida IFAS Extension, Florida Microplastic Awareness Project)

It may be in the oysters we eat, the water we drink and in the air we breathe.  There’s no magic way of getting rid of it.  And, it seems the Gulf of Mexico’s most pervasive plastic pollutant may be literally on our backs.

By Janice Van Dyke Walden

For years, scientists have reported on the extent of plastic pollution in far-off places of the world.  But a new effort is revealing just how extensive “plastic soup” is in the Gulf of Mexico.  In the first citizen-scientist effort to document the extent of microplastic pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, volunteers and scientists are finding that these permanent fragments are in nearly every sample they take.

The low-level collection method of dipping one-liter water bottles and collecting sediment in one-gallon bags is also showing that microplastics are just as extensive in urban areas as they are in remote locations of the Gulf.

2017 10 09 09.07.07 300x300 Plastic in Paradise Part II: Microplastics

Plastic fibers float in a sample collected in Galveston. Photo courtesy Turtle Island Restoration Network, Galveston.

Microscopic trash

Most microplastics are created when sunlight or wave action breaks down larger pieces of plastic debris into tiny, even microscopic bits.  Colorful and abundant, they enter the marine system as fragments, film, fiber and microbeads.  Lifted in the air, washed from our landfills, or drained from our sinks and washing machines, they end up in our oceans for thousands of years where marine life ingest or adhere to it.

Through a microscope, Theresa Morris has observed baby shells living among microplastics and algae living in Styrofoam.  As a citizen-scientist coordinator based in Galveston with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, she’s one of the scientists involved in creating a more complete picture about the extent of microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico.  “The research is so new, we don’t know how bad it is,” she admits.  Although Morris and volunteers have analyzed just a few samples on Galveston’s beach, she’s convinced that more investigation needs to be done with funding behind it.  Each sample she’s examined contains some form of microplastic.

In the course of her PhD thesis, Caitlin Wessel has seen microplastics in hundreds of samples she’s collected, from the Texas-Mexico border to the Florida Keys.  As she   finishes her doctorate, Wessel works as the Gulf of Mexico Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program based in Mobile, Alabama.  Her two years of degree work collecting samples from water, beach sand and coastal shelf material show just how prevalent tiny bits of plastic are, even in the most unlikely locations.

Wessel got curious about microplastics four years ago during a moment offshore Louisiana.  While helping a fellow grad student off Louisiana’s uninhabited Chandeleur Islands, Wessel found herself picking bits of plastic out of seagrass cores.  It’s not what she expected to find 30 miles offshore at the nation’s second oldest National Wildlife Refuge.  “That got me thinking,” Wessel recalls.  “This is supposed to be a pristine habitat, but there’s all this trash out here.”

Volunteers dipping one-liter bottles are finding microplastics in the most remote locations of the Gulf Coast. (Photo courtesy University of Florida IFAS Extension, Florida Microplastic Awareness Project)

Fiber, fiber everywhere

Around that same time, Dr. Maia Patterson McGuire started wondering if microbeads were present in the ecosystem she works in.  Found in toothpaste and exfoliate healthcare products, the tiny beads of plastic rinse off, go down the drain and into the stream chain.  Because they are so tiny, most wastewater treatment facilities pass microbeads.  When McGuire, a University of Florida Marine Biologist, began her citizen-science investigation in 2015, there was no law forbidding the production of microbeads, and not very much was known about their impact on marine life.  With a grant from NOAA, McGuire trained and equipped 16 partner organizations that organized 130 volunteers to collect water samples along the entire coast of Florida.  McGuire was looking for the tiny microbeads.  Instead, she found a different, more prevalent plastic: plasticized fiber, the kind used in synthetic clothing and other products.

“It could be nylon, it could be acrylic, it could be polyester, it could be the plant-based plastics like rayon or a polymer that is made from cellulose, but still a plasticized product,” says McGuire.  Without access to more precise equipment, “we can’t tell just what kind of fiber it is,” she says.  But what she does know is that the fiber is manmade, it’s widespread, and it’s not going away.  “There seems to be an equal-opportunity of finding plastics in water samples regardless of where they are collected.”

Erik Sparks agrees.  At Mississippi State University, he is the collection point for all the samples taken in this citizen-scientist project.  Working with Morris, Wessel, McGuire and other partners along the Gulf Coast, he’s seen the results of hundreds of samples, from Corpus Christi, Texas to the Florida Keys.  In the two years of data reporting, Sparks is finding that “at least 90% of the microplastics have been fibers.  By far, the most abundant microplastics are microfibers that come off of polyester clothing.”

Clothe the world

With only so much land on earth to produce cotton and wool, polyester fiber is filling the gap, clothing a world population expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050.   As the population soars, so does polyester production.  In the last 20 years, polyester production increased five times to 50 million tons per year.   In the next 8 years, it’s expected to nearly double to an all time high.

Fibers in bivalves

That’s not good news for the Gulf of Mexico where oysters and other bivalves live and ingest the “plastic soup”.  When they filter microplastic-infused water, plastic can stay lodged in bivalve tissue.  No one knows for how long.  Of the oysters that Caitlin Wessel found in Mobile Bay, 25% contained 3 to 5 bits of microplastic.  Beyond its disturbing presence in tissue, microplastics are also known to interfere with the reproductive and offspring performance of oysters.  A study published by the National Academy of Sciences in March 2016 explains that Pacific oysters exposed for two months to polystyrene microspheres (micro-PS) experienced decreases in diameter, oocyte number and sperm velocity.

And, microplastics’ adverse interaction is not limited to oysters.  It appears to affect all levels of aquatic life.  A 2017 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that in lab results dating to 1991, aquatic organisms experienced at least one impact through interaction with microplastics.   The impacts range up the aquatic food chain from adherence in algae to liver toxicity in fish.

That kind of exposure may affect humans.  “As plastics break down, they leach toxins that are very bad for you,” says Morris, “Like PBCs.  They’re carcinogenic.  They cause mutations in fetuses.  They also cause a lot of physiological complications in your endocrine system.  Fish eat them, and so, when you eat fish,” she explains, “you are eating meat that has had these plastic toxins leached into the meat.  The research is so new; we don’t know if this is what is causing people to come down with cancer.”

Given the recent spotlight on microplastics in the media, there’s still no ceasing the trend of more people on earth.  So, the demand for plastic will be there where natural resources are spare.  Which means, microplastics will be in the Gulf of Mexico a long, long time.  “There’s no feasible way to remove microplastics from the water without basically removing every piece of life from the water,” says McGuire.  And, if that were to happen, we’d no longer have an ocean.

TAKE THE PLEDGE

McGuire used her citizen-scientist investigation to form the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.  Each volunteer takes a pledge. You can, too.

  • Read labels on personal care products and avoid those that contain polyethylene.
  • Use paper or re-useable shopping bags.
  • Avoid using plastic drinking straws.
  • Bringing your own water bottle or drinking cup instead of buying single-use plastic beverage bottles.
  • Instead of Styrofoam, bring your own washable hot drink cup.
  • Use foil or a washable container as a to-go box.
  • Recycle as many plastic items as possible.
  • Instead of nylon, acrylic and polyester, choose more natural fabrics.

Find it at www.plasticaware.org.

Plastic in Paradise

October 31st, 2017

shane Plastic in Paradise

Captain Shane Cantrell shows how a 2 cent plastic bag nearly cost him $80,000. Photo by Jim Olive.

The Bottle and the Bag

By Janice Van Dyke Walden

Plastic in Paradise is a three-part series on the prevalence of plastic in the Gulf Coast’s marine life, and how it affects the food we eat and the water we drink.  Speaking to local groups who deal with it everyday, they tell us how prevalent plastic pollution is along the Gulf Coast, and what we can do to reduce it and to eliminate it from our lives.

As much as 90% of floating marine debris may be plastic.   And that doesn’t account for all the plastic that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, settling in sediment for thousands of years.  Researchers estimate that 70% of plastic pollution will never be seen because it sinks out of sight.

While a definitive study on the impact of plastic on the Gulf of Mexico has not be conducted, institutions along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas are now banding together to collect, quantify and analyze plastic samples found along our shores.

A study published in 2014 estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris possibly float in the world’s oceans.   Because the Gulf of Mexico was not included in that study, there’s no telling what our Gulf would contribute to the plastic count.  But on the surface, here’s what some Gulf Coast residents are finding.  It’s affects their livelihood.  It affects the way we live:

The cost to fishermen

It’s the sound that no captain wants to hear: an alarm onboard goes off while you’re ten miles offshore.

That’s what happened last August to Captain Shane Cantrell aboard his charter vessel, Sharecropper.  The boat was full of paying clients, ready for a day of fishing.  They had cleared the Galveston jetty and were well out of site of land.  Something triggered the overhead alarm on the intake.  Cantrell stopped everything to open up the engine hatch and take a look.  Inside he saw convenience wrapped around his gear case:  a plastic ice bag either thrown overboard or allowed to get loose by someone.  Ten miles offshore, a single bag had sucked up in his engine and blocked off the intake for the water pump that keeps the engine cool.  Sharecropper’s twin engines were overheating and could have failed, leaving Cantrell stranded in the Gulf of Mexico with a boatload of clients.

A single 2 cent bag could have cost Cantrell $80,000.  If he had lost both engines, Cantrell figures their replacement would have cost up to $30,000, and his downtime in high season could have meant $50,000 in lost revenue.

Encountering plastic offshore is nothing new to Cantrell.  Most often in May and June when he’s out in depths up to 1,000 feet of water, he’ll see mylar balloons floating in the sargassum.  The balloons are from the season’s graduation parties and ceremonies that have been released and floated away.  Their shiny mylar plastic lodges in the floating beds of sea grass that are food for the Gulf’s juvenile turtles.  “I’ve seen everything from hard hats to plastic bottles out in the sargassum,” he says.  “But, the most common debris apart from the balloons is the single-use bottle and bags.”

turtle Plastic in Paradise

Joanie Steinhaus of Turtle Island Restoration Network says juvenile turtles bit these plastic bleach and vinegar bottles that washed ashore Bolivar Peninsula. Photo by Jim Olive.

Floating global: plastic bottles

Long-time San Leon resident Stennie Meadors shares that same observation.  She speaks with over 30 years in the field of environmental management.  For ten years till 2001 she was an emergency response manager for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality handling response units for spills.  She worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and before that, she conducted hazardous waste inspections in the Houston area.  A turning point for her came in 2007 when her grandson brought her the skeleton of a brown pelican with a plastic bottle lodged in its pelvic area.  The bottle may have come from across the ocean, or it may have been deposited locally.

For three years, Meadors fought to ban plastic bottles in her area.  To this day, there’s no law banning the bottle.  Now she focuses on grassroots clean ups and consumer awareness in the shoreline process.  She and her group of volunteers for Plastic Pollution Partnership comb the beaches from San Luis to Bolivar and from Morgan’s Point to the Texas City Prairie Preserve picking up plastic on a regular basis.  “We see plastic straws,” Meador says, “They are a problem, but we don’t see them as often as we see water bottles.”

Meadors tells of the plastic bottles that washed up recently at Bolivar: about 50 bottles were found  – small, yellow and worn-out, the product of Industrias Macier SA.  The bottles were also punctured with holes.  Meadors discovered they were bite holes of juvenile turtles.  The bottles had floated across the Gulf from the Dominican Republic and drifted onto the beaches of Texas and Louisiana.  Filled with vinegar or bleach, the contents had been used to distill water in the Dominican Republic.  “They sell for 10 cents a bottle, get discarded and then get caught up in the Gulf Stream and land on our shores,” Meador says.  She has given some of the turtle-bitten bottles to Joanie Steinhaus to display.  Steinhaus runs the Galveston office of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, and uses samples like these to bring awareness to the public and to students they work with in Galveston’s schools.

“The plastic is so sharp that it can perforate on the way down,” says Steinhaus’ colleague, Theresa Morris, who is part of the coastal research team.  The turtles “have these spikes in their throat that makes sure the food goes down, and so it will actually force food down in their guts, and the plastic will cut them up on the way down.  Sometimes they can pass it, but you’re talking about very small pieces of plastic, and depending on what they’re made of, the plastics will be leaching chemicals that could cause physiological disruptions.”

The bag

Although bottles are among the top ten plastic items trashing the Gulf Coast, Steinhaus’ biggest plastic peeve is the single use bag, also among the top 10.  “We live on an island,” she says.  “Single use bags have a shelf life of maybe, 12 minutes.  Less than 5% of them are recycled.  They end up in the water.  We live on an island.  They’re blowing down the streets.  They’re going to end up in the Gulf.”

A world of convenience

At Galveston’s Walmart on the Seawall at 64th Street, it’s easy to see how this happens.  The parking lot is full at noon with shoppers pushing cartloads of purchases in plastic bags.  Most of the items are double-sacked.  Within five minutes, 80 plastic bags leave the store.  Outside, a plastic bag floats by a woman waiting for a ride.  “That wasn’t mine,” she says, “It was here when I got here.”

That attitude prevails in North America and Western Europe which use 80% of the 4 trillion plastic bags produced each year.

Some kind of fight

For Steinhaus, “It’s one simple change, and people fight it.”  People like Gov. Greg Abbott.  He opposes individual cities banning the plastic bag, claiming that Texas is being “California-ized.”  Also opposing city ordinances to ban the bag is Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.  He’s asked the Texas Supreme Court to affirm the Fourth Court of Appeals decision that declared Laredo’s plastic bag ban unlawful.   Paxton is calling a bag ban by individual cities unlawful because it violates state law, the Texas Health and Safety Code, which forbids municipalities from making rules to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.

Last year, resistance came on another level, Steinhaus says, when after working with a team of Galveston city officials to draft an ordinance on the marine environment, City Attorney Don Glywasky received a call from a South Carolina law firm with the intent to sue if Galveston passed its bag ban.

The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Laredo’s case on Jan. 11.  The court’s ruling will have implications for Houston, Galveston and all other Texas cities that want to determine their own bag law.  In the meantime, businesses and individuals are choosing alternatives to the plastic bag.

Galveston businesses take voluntary actions

“For hotels, it was easy for them to eliminate them,” says Steinhaus, “They have very limited use; their gift shops – especially the places like the Tremont, The Galvez or the Hilton, their clientele doesn’t mind.  Most of them use paper bags or sell bags.”  For the island’s smaller shops where price margins matter more, Steinhaus is in favor of forming a bag coop to lower the cost of paper bags for individual shop owners.

Either way, these local residents all agree it comes down to personal choice.  Plastic “is something that we can have more control over,” says Cantrell. “It’s not coming from any other source but human.  People don’t think about it, and people don’t intend to throw into the ocean, but it’s there.”

What can you do?

  • Refuse the bag; bring your own bag and bottle.
  • Bundle your plastic bags and deposit them at recycling receptacles located at the front of most grocery stores.
  • Buy your own re-useable bags and keep them in your car. If you don’t yet have a collection of re-useable bags, use paper bags.
  • Tell the store manager you’ll shop elsewhere unless they provide an alternative bag, like a paper bag or one you can buy and re-use.
  • Recycle any plastic bottles you find or purchase.
  • Instead of buying bottled water for home consumption, buy a Brita or other water filter, and filter your own water.  Drink for drink, it’s less expensive, too.
  • Tell your city, county and state representatives what you want done about the plastic bag and bottle.
  • Join a local advocacy group.  Help with clean ups.  Spread awareness and good habits.  You can do it every day or once a year.

 

Texas Local Advocacy Groups

Plastic Pollution Reporting for Galveston/Harris Counties

Stennie Meadors

stenmead@aol.com and on Facebook

 

Galveston Bay Foundation

www.galvbay.org

 

NOAA Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Program

https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/

 

Turtle Island Restoration Network

https://seaturtles.org/newssection/bring-the-bag-psa-galveston/

 

Texans for Clean Water

http://www.texansforcleanwater.org/

 

Adopt a Beach

https://www.facebook.com/TexasAdoptABeach/

 

Trash Bash

http://www.trashbash.org/