Sunday, July 21, 2019

Week 2 - Where plastic waste goes (Piers Park)

Welcome back!

The skate! Gloves help with the sharp ridges.
   This past week I worked at the Harbor Explorers camp at Piers Park, and because this week wasn't cut short by July 4th, we had plenty of time to catch some really exciting animals. The beginning of the week started off slow, with Asian green crabs comprising most of our haul, and the occasional small fish that wandered into our crab trap (we caught a pipefish on Monday, and cunners the rest of the week). Something funny I've noticed about our catches is that we catch most of our crabs with fishing poles and most of our fish in the crab trap. Go figure. Catches started to pick up on Wednesday when we found a sea star! One of the counselors found it while paddling some kids around on a kayak. We thought that was our big catch for the week, but just the next day one of the kids caught a skate on the hook! After getting the skate off the hook, the kids spent the rest of fishing time admiring and (carefully) petting the skate.
Sea star! This one had only 4 arms.

Cunner fish! Also known as a chogee.

     In addition to finding animals like sea stars, one of the kids' favorite things to do on the kayak is to pick up trash they found in the ocean, which was mostly plastic. Like most people, the kids know that plastic in the ocean is bad for the animals and that they should clean it up, but don't know the details past "it's bad" and "it hurts animals". It occurred to me that I didn't know how to explain to the kids how a plastic water bottle goes from useful to deadly throughout its lifespan, so I did some research. Here's what I found:

What happens to plastic after we use it

     Let's get an important bit of information out of the way that is the main cause of our problems with plastic: 91% of all plastic is not recycled.[1] That means that 91% of all plastic finds its way into landfills to last several lifetimes, and some of that goes into the ocean. All of the problems detailed below that plastic waste creates could be lessened by just recycling. That being said, plastic production has its own negative environmental impact due to the oil needed to make the plastic the gas required to transport everything.[2]

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covering 1.6 million
kilometers and roughly twice the size of Texas.[5]
     Beyond the environmental impact of just the production of plastics, plastic waste poses an immediate threat to marine life. Animals can become entangled in larger plastics, and the smaller waste is eaten by other animals and kills them.[3] Marine plastic pollution has affected 86% of sea turtle species and 44% of all seabird species, for example.[4] Most of the plastic in the Pacific Ocean is found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of two major waste patches in the Pacific Ocean. Here, if a given piece of plastic is buoyant enough, it gets sucked into a current vortex, along with roughly 2 million tonnes of other waste. Here it circles, slowly eroded by the sun, waves, and various marine life until it turns into microplastic, which is even more dangerous in the ocean than its larger counterpart.[5]

     Microplastic waste is the quiet but enormous problem with marine plastic. These tiny plastic beads and fibers are smaller than 5mm in diameter, and are mistaken as food by birds and smaller animals (such as lugworms).[6] These microplastics either choke the animals, or stay in their system for a while, which brings its own hazards. Plastics that aren't used for food transport often have chemicals like flame retardants, which are commonly carcinogenic or toxic.[3] These chemicals work their way up the food chain: the smaller animals that eat the microplastics, and each successive animal in the food chain ingests these particles until it makes its way onto our dinner plates. Marine plastic waste doesn't just generate pictures of cute animals tangled up in nets: it's actually harming through our food.
Visualization of plastic debris in the ocean. Each white dot is 20kg of plastic.
Full and interactive visualization found at Sailing the Seas of Plastic
     The best solution to this problem would be to minimize and eventually eliminate plastic waste, but on an individual level there are plenty of things we can do. Replacing single-use plastic bags is an easy start, as reusable replacements are easily accessible, and most groceries provide small discounts for customers with reusable bags. Beyond that, people can cut down on single-use plastic items such as plastic coffee cups, straws, and disposable cutlery to lessen their impact on marine waste. Personally, I have a set of reusable cutlery and a reusable straw that I bring to work and use every day with lunch. Even on an individual level, every effort counts.

Link to buy a reusable straw for anyone who is interested.

Song of the week: Alrighty Aphrodite by Peach Pit

Until next time,
     ~Colin McRae


Parker, L. (2018, December 20). A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled. Retrieved from

Angel Water. (2017, September 13). The Life Cycle of a Plastic Water Bottle. Retrieved from

Fuhr, L. (2017, May 23). Why a global treaty is needed to tackle our plastics problem. Retrieved from

The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. (2017, December 20). Retrieved from

Snowden, S. (2019, May 31). 300-Mile Swim Through The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Will Collect Data On Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from

The impact of microplastics on marine life. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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