Published On: Wed, Jul 23rd, 2014

How about some plastic with your sand? | Waterways

One of the things marine researchers (and those of us that spend time on the beach) have begun to take notice of is the plastic  everywhere. Unfortunately, the plastic things we use every day break down very slowly. If the plastic finds its way to our marine waters, which is pretty easy via stormwater, through treated sewage or disposal directly into the water, it hangs around a good long time. Unknowingly, some of us are even contributing small plastic particles directly when we wash our faces.

Marine researchers are working on understanding and publicizing this new emerging contamination problem which they call ‘microplastics.” A piece of microplastic can come from the breakdown of larger waste plastic that finds its way to Puget Sound or the ocean. Those plastics are slowly broken apart by wind and waves into smaller and smaller pieces.

How about some plastic with your sand? | Waterways

How about some plastic with your sand? | Waterways

Some types of plastics are further degraded by the sun (photolosis). Yet other small plastics enter the water and air as fine fibers from the slow but methodical breakdown of our synthetic clothing.

We at Stillwaters — as we analyze sediment, water, and insect samples from around the bridge restoration site near Arness Park — often encounter fine fibers that are red or blue, which are not the colors from natural wood or plant fibers. All of these different kinds of small pieces of plastics are called microplastics if they are 1 to 5 millimeters or smaller.

One additional kind of microplastic that is getting some press are the small spherical plastic beads that are intentionally added to industrial abrasion products  and more often in those facial scrubs promising exfoliation and more beautiful skin. Some of us women will remember that this kind of scrub product have been offered for years, but in the past all the gentle abrasive materials were derived from apricot pits or other nut hulls. Now, many products add very tiny plastic beads. There can be hundreds of thousands in one tube. You can see by the photo that these beads are so small they easily pass through conventional sewage treatment (or are certainly not breaking down in our septic systems).

Researchers found so many of these beads interspersed in the sands and sediments in the Great Lakes that some states have banned those products. You can find more information on the Great Lakes studies on the web.  There are other small plastics we see as we walk the beach. Next time you walk a sandy beach, take a few minutes and really look at a handful of sand. I would bet, even here in our shores, you will find some plastic particles.

In many cases, the plastic is the size of some phytoplankton and zoo plankton, the basic food sources for all marine life. As the amount of non-food plastic particles increase in our waterway and shorelines, the fish and wildlife that ingest those particles for food are not getting a full meal. They also are getting something else — the chance for increased pollutants as a condiment. Microplastics, especially the microbeads in facial scrubs, have great surface area that can be a place for pollutants to attach.

Many of the persistent bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals in our environment are hydrophobic. They do not dissolve easily, but rather are repelled by or don’t mix well with water. Therefore, sediment or small plastics can be a magnet for these chemicals, and ingestion can be a pathway for marine critters to be exposed to higher concentrations of pollutants. Fortunately, there is some good news on the microbead front. Several companies (Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, for example) have agreed to stop using microbeads in their products in the future.

Millions of microbeads on our shores and sad stories of marine birds and other wildlife being killed, starved or hurt by encountering plastics in our waters offers us something to think about. Do we really need all this plastic? Can we find ways to live happily with a little less? Think about it as you walk the beach and see some interesting colored sand grains.