Page Banner
Twitterinstagram imageFacebookFacebook LikeYouTubeBlog image

Emma McGurren

Summer Memories and Ocean Microplastics

I had woken up particularly early that morning. A bright slice of sunlight shone on my bed and I couldn’t fall back asleep. I could already feel the weight of the hot air coming in through my open window. My favorite pink blanket stuck to me, and I had left my bear sitting against the back of my bed because he was making me overheat. I heard my sister waking up on the other side of the room as I groggily walked downstairs and found mom making breakfast for my sister Clara and me. “Good morning, Emma, I was thinking we would go to the beach today! How does that sound to you?” A big smile spread across my face. There was no place I would rather be, especially on such a hot day.

My love of the beach began at a very young age. I loved finding samples of the treasures it held–beach glass, shells, hermit crabs, and starfish. But most of all I loved the sense of freedom the beach gave me. My sister and I often spent hours a day at the beach with my mom. For little Emma the beach was an extension of my simple, creative, and free childhood. Clara and I spent almost all of our younger days outside digging in the mud, building forts in the woods behind the house.

However, my love of this special place has evolved since my younger days. Part of what makes the beach so special to me now is all the childhood memories it holds. Every time I return they come flooding back, even if I haven’t thought of them for months. The love I have of this place has transformed from the simple love of a fun place to play into a deeper, more complex love rooted in a feeling of duty to protect this special, crucial place.

Now, the blue ocean moves and breathes in front of me. The waves crashing on the shore, the wind blowing the surface waters into a froth of different tones of blue and green. The ocean seemed like a being all of its own—a moving, breathing animal. Of course I know it isn’t, but I do know it contains more life in its depths than there is here on land. Here, time slows down. My thoughts become calmer. All my problems seem to fade away. This gives me a chance to slow my fast-paced life. My brain moves very quickly in my everyday life, and I find it difficult to take a quiet moment for myself, but at the beach, I feel I have all the time in the world to appreciate the endless beauty around me. I can watch the seagulls soaring over my head and see smiles on everyone’s face; I feel the wind blowing through my hair and sounds of the crashing waves and laughter drift over to me.  The ocean is a separate world, a world apart. A world vitally connected to the one in which we live.

My personal connection to the ocean has grown as my knowledge of it grows. In my Marine Science class this spring I quickly learned that phytoplankton in the ocean make 50% of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean serves as a sink for our excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Our precious ocean also helps distribute heat throughout the waters and consequently the land it surrounds.

I also learned that one of the most serious issues our ocean faces today is the rising concentration of microplastics. Microplastics are often defined as small bits of plastic less than 10mm in size, although some sources define them as pieces less than 5mm (Cole et al.; Law, K. L. et al.). Because of their small size, many of these particles are invisible to the naked eye and require a microscope to be seen at all. There are also various types of microplastics––those found in exfoliating face and body washes and cosmetics that are already very small are known as primary plastics, and microplastics that came from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic are known as secondary plastics (Cole et al).

I recently completed a research project on microplastics that explored the concentrations of the microplastics off the coast of Freeport, Maine. Before my team began to design our research, we looked at other studies to find out what methods were being used, what they had found out, and what they were lacking. Many previous studies tested microplastic abundance in surface water, but my team was curious about abundance in waters below the surface and coastal sediments––but we certainly didn’t expect the results we found. My research team found a shockingly high concentration of microplastics in both locations we sampled, but we found the highest concentrations in the place we least expected––the sediments. This meant that many of the previous calculations in the studies we reviewed were misleading in terms of the abundance of plastics in marine ecosystems because they were not taking into account the microplastics that had sunk and become trapped in the sediments. We also found a surprising correlation between increased microplastic concentration in the surface waters and recent rainfall, which strongly suggested that many of the microplastics we were finding came from land sources. However, once these plastics enter and journey through our ocean both through the land and sea, major problems quickly begin to emerge because plastics never biodegrades but rather only breaks into smaller and smaller bits.

The problems begin with the zooplankton who eat the microplastics and either die from starvation or are eaten by their predators who then ingest the microplastics; following this pattern microplastics eventually reach the digestive systems of our food. Some of the negative effects reported on marine organisms include blocked digestive tracts, which can result in starvation and then death or physical weakness. Physical weakness can also result in reduced reproductive fitness, drowning, and lesser ability to react to predators (Wright Stephanie L., et al.). Tests also found particles in fish off the coast of New England identical to those that had previously been found in plankton tows (Wright Stephanie L., et al.)

Microplastics come from sources such as microfleeces, microbeads in washes, and bits of plastic from soda bottles and sea plastic––all controllable human sources. Since roughly half of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast, it is not surprising that about 80% of the microplastics are sourced back to land; these plastics enter the ocean as they leach from landfills and water filtration systems (Cole et al.). To add to the crisis, most water filtration systems only catch the larger particles, which still allow the fibers from fleece jackets to enter the ocean (Cole et al.). Flooding and hurricanes also transport large pieces of plastic into the ocean that slowly degrade into harmful microplastics over many years (Cole et al.). Studies found an estimated 360,000 microbeads in one tube of Neutrogena’s “Deep Clean” facial wash (Campaigns). Studies also found that some products that had between 1-5% microbeads (Campaigns). A recent study conducted in New York estimated that nearly 19 tons of microbeads are discarded into wastewater by the state each year (Solon). These studies shows how preventable this source can be in the future since it is completely human based and is driven by our “throw-away” culture.

To solve this problem, we must first begin to make this problem a larger issue in our everyday lives. Consumers have great power over the products corporations make. If we stop buying certain products, companies will cease to make them. Some companies have responded to consumer complaints; one campaign called “Beat the Microbead” has helped accelerate this banning movement. “Beat the Microbead” even created an app sold worldwide whose purpose is to inform consumers if the product they are buying contains microbeads. Companies such as Unilever and The Body Shop have promised to completely phase out their use of microbeads by 2015 (“International Campaign”). Other companies such as Colgate-Palmolive and Trekpleister promised to phase out their use of microplastics and microbeads by the beginning of 2014 (“International Campaign”). Countless other companies have already completed, or are in the process of phasing microbeads and microplastics out of their products. Recently efforts are being made in New York to ban products containing microbeads. New York Attorney General Eric Schneirderman proposed an act in February of 2014 called the “Microbead-Free Waters Act” (Solon). Progress is clearly being made but there is still so much to do.

As my team analyzed the results from our research, we found terrible trends in the data–– high concentrations of microplastics in the sediments and deep water. I was absolutely shocked to witness such awful results first hand. For me, it was solid evidence of our severely negative impact on the health of our ocean. This was a real turning point for me. I began to realize the true complexity of the relationship that we all have with the ocean. If we want to continue to enjoy the ocean’s beauty, we must take action to protect it. Our use of single use plastics, microbeads washes, and our careless disposal of these plastics are causing grave damage to the ocean. Many people think, “Well, I am just one person–my actions can’t make a difference,” but the truth is our actions can make a huge difference. If each person recognized his or her own role in microplastic ocean pollution we could turn around this growing problem.

Microplastics are one of the most reducible sources of pollution because they are completely human based, and there are simple alternatives to microbeads. We must not let this issue become even more out of hand; we have a duty to our world and future generations. We must make progress, quickly, towards banning microbeads all together. We must each realize what a difference we can make together if we stop the use of products with microbeads and single use plastics.

As a child the ocean felt like another home; I felt protected there with the sound of the waves crashing. But now, I feel as though I have the duty to protect the ocean. There is only so much the ocean can do to protect itself. Once we start adding pollutants to its waters, how can we expect the ocean to continue to exist as it has before? We vitally need the ocean more than many people are aware of: it serves as a source for copious amounts of oxygen as well as a sink for our carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention the emotional value it holds  for so many of us. We must begin showing how much we value the ocean by being more conscious about our actions and their long-term effects on the ocean and the world around us.


Works Cited

“Campaigns.” 5 Gyres Understanding Plastic Pollution Through Exploration Education and Action. Gyres Institute, n.d. Web. 22 May 2014. http://5gyres.org/how_to_get_involved/campaigns/.

Cole Matthew, Pennie Lindeque, Claudia Halsband, and Tamara S. Galloway. “Microplastics as Contaminants in the Marine Environment: A Review.” Elsevier 12.62 (2011): 2588+. Microplastics as Contaminants in the Marine Environment: A Review. Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X11005133.

“International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics.” Industry. Kirschbaumke.nl, n.d. Web. 22 May 2014. http://beatthemicrobead.org/en/industry.

Law, K. L., S. Moret-Ferguson, N. A. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski, E. E. Peacock, J. Hafner, and C. M. Reddy. “Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.” Science 329.5996 (2010): 1185-188. Sciencemag.org, 3 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. http://www.grid.unep.ch/FP2011/step1/pdf/015_Law_2010.pdf.

Solon, Olivia. “New York Calls for Ban on Face Scrub Microbeads (Wired UK).” Wired UK. N.p., 16 May 2014. Web. 22 May 2014. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-05/16/microbeads.

Wright, Stephanie L., Richard C. Thompson, and Tamara S. Galloway. “The Physical Impacts of Microplastics on Marine Organisms: A Review.” Environmental Pollution 178 (2013): 483-92. Elsevier. 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. http://www.resodema.org/publications/publication9.pdf.