THE IMPACT OF MICROPLASTICS ON COASTAL BIOSYSYEMS

Posted by Doreen Higgins on Nov 05, 2018
Dr. Jay Brandes of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Georgia, spoke to us this week. Jay has dual BS degrees in chemistry and oceanography and a PhD in Chemical Oceanography; he is a professor at the Institute of Oceanography. “Microplastics” are defined as pieces of plastic material smaller than 5 millimeters. And, Jay told us, they are everywhere; they are even found in the Mariana Trench, one of the deepest ocean locations on earth.
 
How did we get into this mess? Many of the items we use are packed in plastic because it serves as a superb protector of its contents. Its efficiency in this respect is its principal fault from the perspective of its ability to survive when it has served its purpose and becomes trash. Its industry sources are, consumer products, electronics, building and construction, textiles, machinery, and others – the largest market for plastics is in packaging, and packaging material may account for at least half of the plastic waste generated globally. Its use as packaging guarantees, by definition, that it will serve a temporary purpose and then be discarded; most of the discarded plastic is neither recycled nor incinerated. Looking at one of the many culprits, we see bottled water as a conspicuous offender. In 2008 consumers bought 8 billion gallons of this product, and that’s ten years ago; its plastic packaging always ends up in the trash.

Because most sources of plastic waste are on land, concentrations of this waste are heavier near the shore. Volunteers who clean our beaches always find large amounts of plastic. Microplastics derive from the breakdown of larger pieces, and they interact with the marine food chain in the coastal areas. Jay turned his attention to the Georgia coast, from Tybee in the north to Cumberland Island in the south, and the scientific process of collection, cleaning, and identification of the microfiber debris found there. The heaviest concentration on the Georgia coast is found in and around the Savannah River estuary, the source being the most populous area, the city of Savannah. Jay gave us a few estimates: there are over a trillion microplastic fibers/particles in Georgia’s intracoastal waterway - the United Nations says there are 51 trillion particles in the world’s oceans. “Underestimates!” Jay says. And of course, these tiny bits of plastic get into the food we derive from these waters, into our fish, oysters, shrimp, and into our beloved turtles too.

What should we do? There is already substantial public concern, but the problem is worldwide and must be attacked internationally. That may be a tall order, but there are other actions we can take to mitigate the problem. We can reduce our own use of the offending material, we can insist on recycling programs in our localities, we can support reengineering efforts to assist degradation of plastic, we can campaign for the use of other materials, and we can demand better containment systems so that the offending material stays out of our waterways. And yes, there are microfibers in our bottled water too!
 
Below is a photo of President Andy and Jay Brandes.