Plastic. It’s everywhere.

It’s in our oceans. In our soil. And in our air.

Photo courtesy of Will Greene- @williamegreene

It washes up on our beaches, and if it’s not picked up, it can very well end up right back in the ocean. In Miami, beach clean-ups happen on the regular. In April, some of my students and I along with my colleague, Melinda Paduani, attended the Baynanza event (a county-wide initiative to clean-up areas that border Biscayne Bay) at Bill Baggs State Park.

Generally, at beach clean-ups, volunteers pick up larger plastics (water bottles, bags, etc.). However, Melinda studies microplastics- or plastics that are less than 5mm in length. These small plastics include both plastics that have broken down and plastics that are already small (glitter, confetti, etc.). With Melinda’s help, we developed a method for sifting plastics through the sand.

AND it might look easy in the picture below, but it was not. The day of the clean-up was a really windy day and sometimes the wind would blow away the plastic we found! When we weren’t sifting through the sand, we picked up pieces one by one, which as you can imagine is super inefficient.

Photo courtesy of Will Greene- @williamegreene

When we found plastic pieces, we stored them in this mason jar. We wanted to see how long it took to fill this jar. It took about 2 and a 1/2 hours given the wind and how tedious it was both sift through the sand and pick these pieces up by hand.

Photo courtesy of Will Greene- @williamegreene

As a society, we’re still wrapping our heads around the plastic problem- let alone the microplastic problem. Researchers estimate that there are approximately 5 TRILLION PIECES OF PLASTIC floating in the surface waters… we don’t know how much plastic is below the surface.

Photo courtesy of Will Greene- @williamegreene
Would PAMM be happy to know this is where their tags end up?

After the event, I wanted to examine the contents of the mason jar. We found broken rope, pieces of plastic bags, bottle caps, and even part of a red solo cup. What’s really troubling is that these pieces are the plastics that wouldn’t normally be picked up. These plastics may very well make their way back to the oceans depending on where it washes up on the beach. Once there, they could stay in the ocean and continue to breakdown into smaller plastics. They could be ingested by fishes or other animals. Those plastic particles could then make its way into us when we eat fish.

Why is this a problem? Plastics contain various toxic polymers, additives, and compounds based on its intended use. Many of these additives are suspected to be toxic or even carcinogenic when ingested or present in the environment. However, the research on the effects of plastics has yet to catch up with the problem. Scientists are still trying to determine the extent of the microplastic problem and the effects that plastics will have on the food chain, the environment, and our bodies.

What can you do? Beach clean-ups are great, but they must be coupled with more action. We need to consider the cost of our convenience and support the structural changes in our society that would allow for the re-use of everyday products. While that does shift some of the burden on us to carry reusable items, the alternative is that we continue to add to the plastics already present in our oceans, air, and soils. Getting rid of single use plastics is just the beginning.

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