Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute research professor Dr. Tracy Mincer doesn’t want to scare you, but he says ocean pollution from microplastics – tiny bits of plastic too small to be seen by the human eye – is much worse than most people think.
Mincer says more than eight million metric tons of the stuff – laden with fossil hydrocarbon – escape waste disposal and recycling efforts and make their way into the world’s oceans each year, threatening marine creatures and their environment.
“If you take the nine biggest marine disaster oil spills and combine them, that’s still not as much hydrocarbon as what’s going into the oceans from eight million metric tons of plastic every year,” Mincer said.
Scientists have found plastic particles in the digestive tracts of more than 100 different species – sea turtles, sea birds, fish, and other creatures – that mistake the tiny shards for food.
Plastic clogs their digestive systems and can sicken and kill them.
In a study last year by scientists from Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and the University of Georgia, nearly half of 96 recently-hatched baby loggerhead sea turtles that washed back onto beaches between Vero Beach and Lake Worth shed some amount of plastics during their rehabilitation. The rest died, and necropsies showed nearly all had high amounts of plastic in their guts.
Mincer says much attention has been paid to large gyres of plastic garbage found on the surface of the oceans, but he says those only amount to between 100,000 and 250,000 tons. The bulk of plastic waste, he said, breaks up and sinks below the surface to deeper ocean layers, and eventually down to the bottom.
“Deep-sea fishes at one thousand meters have been found to have plastics in them,” the scientist said.
“Plastic debris is affecting fisheries and food security. Our research is interested in quantifying the fate of plastics. We’re looking below the surface – how long do they stay there? How long till they get to bottom sediments? We need to know more so we can manage the problem.”
Mincer and his colleagues at Harbor Branch’s marine chemistry lab are using spectroscopic tools and sensors to examine and identify plastic debris. Mincer himself has spoken with policymakers at the United Nations about his findings.
“There’s a lot of understanding that this is an internationally important issue,” he said.
However, efforts worldwide to curb plastic pollution are spotty. The European parliament recently voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021, but many other countries have no policies in place.
Volunteers who conduct beach cleanups report that, after cigarette butts, plastics make up the majority of trash they collect.
But Mincer says he’s optimistic the problem can be managed. He points to innovations such as Mr. Trash Wheel – a solar- and hydro-powered water wheel that picks up all sorts of trash from Baltimore’s Jones Falls watershed before it reaches the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.
Said Mincer: “Once it escapes into the ocean, it’s hard to get it back. If we can stop putting it in, that makes a huge difference.”