The durability of plastic is a double-edged sword. It works for as long as we need it, but remains long after we toss it in the trash can. That toothbrush you threw away seven years ago is still out there, as are those plastic bottles. In fact, every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence in some shape or form.
Each year, over 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans. That’s equal to one dump truck every minute. Unfortunately for our oceans, plastic does not biodegrade. When exposed to the sun’s rays and strong ocean currents, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that persist in the marine environment for centuries.
“We all have a role to play in the movement toward a plastic-free Salish Sea. The solution involves a commitment from all of us to reduce plastic consumption, strengthen scientific understanding of the effects of plastic to human health and the environment, and develop sound policy that engages individuals, governments, and industry.” — Kathryn Davis, Puget Soundkeeper Stewardship Manager
Plastic fragments and fibers 5 millimeters in size and smaller are called microplastics, and they don’t just come from the breakdown of larger debris. Research has found that car tires, latex paint, and fibers from synthetic clothing are all major contributors to microplastic pollution.
Plastics can contain harmful additives like phthalates (used to make plastic more flexible) and PBDEs (flame retardants). Even more concerning, plastics can adsorb toxic compounds already present in a polluted waterway, including DDT, PCBs, nonylphenols (industrial detergents), heavy metals, pesticides, and pathogens. If an organism consumes contaminated plastic, these toxics may transfer to the organism’s tissues.
Separate studies have found microplastics in fish, shellfish, salt, honey, beer, and even drinking water. An international study completed in 2017 found that the U.S. had the highest microplastic contamination rate in our drinking water, detecting plastic fibers in 94 percent of tap water samples from sites including Congressional buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. University of Washington students found microplastic in 100 percent of samples taken at the UW Seattle campus.
We are just beginning to understand the magnitude of the microplastics problem. In the fall of 2017, Puget Soundkeeper and the University of Puget Sound coordinated the collection of water samples from 44 sites across Puget Sound, from the San Juan Islands to Olympia. Throughout the fall, volunteers took to local shorelines with sample jars and data sheets. We analyzed those samples in the winter of 2018, and the results were telling. Out of the 44 samples that volunteers took, 41 of them contained at least one microplastic, and 96% of all microplastics found were fibers.
Puget Soundkeeper seeks to document the extent of microplastic pollution in Puget Sound in order to inform future policy, technology innovations, and restoration efforts that protect this ecologically and culturally important watershed.
To learn more about what you can do to help in our efforts to fight marine debris, take the plastic pledge to get updates and action alerts related to microplastics.The first and most basic step you can take as a consumer is to reduce your reliance on plastic! Ask your local grocer, café, or retailer if they have plastic-free packaging options. Repair plastic items like hair dryers or TV remotes when they break instead of throwing them out. Invest in reusable alternatives such as glass or metal water bottles, utensils, and food containers.
We are seeking volunteers to take samples during the fall of 2018 at International Coastal Cleanup events. To participate in this exciting community science project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.