Micro-Plastics, Major Problem

‘Microplastics’ is a category that scientists use for any plastics smaller than your thumbnail. Because of their small size, it’s almost unbelievable that such tiny plastics can cause so much damage in our vast oceans.

As part of my graduate studies at UNC-Wilmington, I’ve learned just how much damage microplastics can do. I’m studying the impacts of ingested plastics on larval fish (inland silversides) and their zooplankton prey. I am primarily focusing on species that spend most of their time in estuaries since estuaries are often one of the marine habitats most heavily affected by plastic pollution. In estuaries, larval fish and zooplankton are an important source of food for larger fishery species (blue crabs, sea bass, etc.). My experiments have shown that microplastics can move from prey to predator, what we call trophic transfer. If smaller prey items ingest microplastics, these plastics can quickly find their way up the food chain and perhaps end up on our dinner plates!

A group from Plastic Ocean Project meet for a beach cleanup and to educate the local community on single-use plastics.

I first learned about the plastic pollution problem through my research. Once you realize how big of a problem plastic is for the environment, you really start to see all of the plastics that you and everyone around you use. The coffee cups, straws, water bottle, toothbrushes, contact lenses, even this computer keyboard I’m typing on. Shortly after I had discovered this problem, I knew I had to take action. Together with Bonnie Monteleone (founder of the Plastic Ocean Project) and a few friends, I started a Plastic Ocean Project chapter at UNCW. Although we started with just 5 people, we grew as we taught more and more people about the problem. Today the chapter has over 100 members. Through events like cleanups and educational tables set up around the community, we have been able to reach hundreds of people and show them the problem first had.

Because reduction of single-use plastics seems like the most plausible solution, we help initiate a number of initiatives locally to help combat those types of plastics. After seeing the amount of plastic straws on the beach (sometimes up to 50 between a few beach accesses!) we partnered with Wrightsville Beach Keep It Clean and Surfrider Cape Fear Chapter to create the Ocean Friendly Establishment program. This program allows local restaurants and businesses that give out single-use straws only upon request to be designated as an Ocean Friendly Establishment. We now have over 50 businesses on board!

Plastic Ocean Project member surveying the beach for plastics and trash.

To tackle the rising use of single-use coffee cups and plastic lids, we created the Green Bean initiative, which encourages local coffee shops to become more ocean friendly. Coffee shops choose to not offer either single-use plastic stirs or creamers, avoid polystyrene and choose reusable plastics, and offer rewards for customers that bring their reusable mug or cup.

Earlier this month, the Plastic Ocean Project partnered with Greenpeace to organize a brand audit and massive cleanup of Wrightsville Beach. Over 50 volunteers came out to clean up a 2-mile stretch of beach! Together we removed thousands of pieces of plastic from a mile stretch of beach. We were also able to determine the biggest corporate polluters of Wrightsville Beach (namely Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Anheuser-Busch) with mostly single-use plastics.

How much plastic can YOU fish out of the ocean?

Not only are we tackling the problem on land, the Plastic Ocean Project has hosted a number of Fishing4Plastic tournaments. These are events where we partner with charter fishermen to take volunteers offshore to collect hundreds of pounds of plastic from the ocean’s surface. We’re also planning trips to get divers in the water to clean up the ocean floor.

What drew me to the Plastic Ocean Project was not only its three-fold mission: education through research, outreach through art, and solutions through innovation but also all of the amazing people who are a part of and support this organization. With all of the issues our oceans are facing, sometimes it’s hard to keep putting all of your energy into the fight. Witnessing the hope, energy and passion this group puts into the fight keeps me going. We’ve shown that a small group of passionate people really can enact change on a large scale.

By Samantha Athey

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