What do beer, the belly of an albatross, and the deepest spot in the ocean all have in common? Plastic.
Plastic has become a global problem. Only a dismal 9% of plastic is actually recycled and 12% is incinerated. The remaining 79% of plastic is left to accumulate in our landfills and environment, where it will never biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming tiny plastic particles called microplastics.
Scientists everywhere are finding microplastics in our air, soil, and drinking water. Oceanic and atmospheric circulation, like currents and wind, move these tiny, sesame-seed sized plastics to every part of the globe, infecting our waterways, agriculture, and wildlife. The plastic crisis shows just how connected the planet really is, and the detrimental impacts plastics have on both aquatic and human health are felt globally.
The human health effect of ingesting microplastics isn’t widely understood by current science. However, we do know microplastics pose a serious threat to our wildlife, due to ingestion and toxic accumulation. Organisms mistake plastics for food, but because their stomachs can’t process the plastic particles, it remains in their digestive tract. This leads to digestive issues and potential starvation as the stomach fills with plastic, leaving no room for nutritious food needed to survive.
In addition, research suggests that animals exposed to microplastics and microfibers, or plastic pieces smaller than 5mm in size, may experience negative impacts to their immune system. In situations where an animal consumes microplastics, their immune system may be compromised and be less capable of dealing with additional stress, such as viral infections.
Toxins in Plastics
Ingesting these microplastics also causes other risks because plastic acts like a magnet to a variety of toxins. Toxins like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which naturally occur in coal, crude oil, and gasoline, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which were once widely distributed in oil-based paints, coolant fluids, and fluorescent lights, are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t dissolve in water. When they come across microplastics in the environment, these hydrophobic toxins bind onto the plastic particles. Consequently, when the plastics are then eaten by animals, the toxins transfer to their tissue. This increase in the concentration of a chemical in an organism over time is called bioaccumulation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. In a process called biomagnification, when one species is eaten by another the toxins transfer into the tissue of animals further up in the food chain.
Tracking the Plastic Problem
Puget Soundkeeper is actively documenting the extent of microplastic pollution in our waterways. Our work is a part of a growing body of scientific research on the global impact of plastic pollution. Through our efforts, we aim to increase public education on plastic pollution and its impacts, and advocate for policy changes that protect both our marine health, local ecosystems, and communities.
Under the Microplastic Monitoring program, Puget Soundkeeper engages local volunteers in collecting and analyzing water samples throughout the Puget Sound region. As part of this, volunteers attend microplastic training sessions to learn how to prepare and assess water samples for evidence of microplastics.
From 2019 to 2020, 34 volunteers analyzed 69 water samples over a course of 12 microplastic training sessions. All 69 samples contained microplastics, with an average of 13 microplastics in each sample. Of the 911 microplastics found, 90% of them were filaments – plastic fibers that are commonly found in synthetic clothing; 6.1% of them were plastic fragments – small pieces of larger plastics broken down over time; and 3.3% of the microplastics were plastic pellets – also known as nurdles, used in the manufacturing of larger plastic objects.
The sites with the most microplastics found were Carkeek Park in Seattle (51 microplastics), Burrows Island Lighthouse on Burrows Island (47), Jarrell Cove State Park on Harstine Island (32), Odlin County Park on Lopez Island (31) and Potlatch State Park near the town of Potlatch (30). Surprisingly the sample from Log Boom Park in Kenmore was mucky and brown, but only had 4 total microplastics found – proving looks can be deceiving!
“Our volunteers learn something new at each microplastics analysis training,” said Gillian Flippo, Puget Soundkeeper Volunteer Coordinator. “After learning about the microfibers in most synthetic clothing, one of our volunteers was committed to only buying cotton clothes and wanted to spread the word about the plastics in our clothing – a wonderful example of how education leads to behavior change!”
What can be done?
Microplastic pollution is a huge global problem that sometimes feels too big to manage. Not everyone has the privilege, time, or access to plastic alternatives. But, if you have the ability to take action, you can start small by reducing your personal plastic use, educating your friends and family about plastic pollution, and inspiring others by leading by example.
Community members can also support policies that reduce our plastic footprint in the region. The successful passage of the Reusable Bag Bill – legislation that Puget Soundkeeper co-sponsored this year – is a great example of laws designed to curb the impact of plastics in Puget Sound by helping stop plastic pollution at its source. Next year, we hope to pass similar legislation that reduces and prevents plastic pollution from entering our waterways.
“Microplastic pollution shows us the planet’s connectedness,” said Gillian Flippo, Puget Soundkeeper Volunteer Coordinator. “Let’s use our interconnectedness in a positive, impactful way. We must come together as a community, and tackle this problem that is taking a massive toll on our oceans and planet.”
By educating people about microplastic pollution and spreading awareness of the state of our Puget Sound waterways, we’re growing a movement of water protectors whose voices will not be ignored.
Thank you to all our incredible Microplastics Monitoring volunteers for donating their time. We are forever grateful and continually inspired by your passion and dedication in protecting and preserving our waterways.
If you’d like to become involved in our microplastics monitoring work and other opportunities, subscribe to Puget Soundkeeper’s newsletter.
Share our infographic below to spread awareness of microplastics in Puget Sound!
To learn more:
- Read Kingdom of Plastics by Western Washington University’s Julie Jeanell Leung.
- Read The Microplastics Crisis – You are the first responder by Harvard’s Kevin Dervishi.
- For more detail on microfiber pollution, check out a three-part series published on Ensia.
- To read publicly-available lab experiments showing microfiber contamination in our food and water, visit this study and this study.
- For a short video explanation of the microfiber problem, see the video made by The Story of Stuff.
- For an in-detail explanation of why synthetic fibers are hard to stop using in clothing and textiles, this article from Quartz summarizes useful information and studies.
- Teuten et al., 2007 – Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants
- Browne et al., 2013 – Conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) shows that toxic concentrations of pollutants and additives enter the tissue of animals that have eaten microplastic.
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