Having recently attended a NOAA workshop in New Hampshire, I was inspired to launch this blog by starting with a subject we at NAMEPA are all too familiar with – marine debris. Something that stuck with me from this workshop is a story someone shared about a student who thought that climate change could be solved, but the problem of plastics and marine debris could not. To many, marine debris is a problem that may seem insurmountable, however we can all do our part to work towards mitigation.
Since NAMEPA’s inception, our education programs have focused primarily on educating seafarers, port communities and students about the causes, impacts and solutions to marine debris. Through this post (and more to come), I want to share some background about marine debris, as well as steps to take towards finding solutions to this global problem.
What We Know
Let’s start with what it is. Marine debris is defined by NOAA as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or Great Lakes.” Unfortunately, there is no part of the world – regardless of human inhabitance – that is left untouched by marine debris.
We don’t exactly know how much marine debris is currently in the ocean, however an estimated 6 million tons of debris enters the world’s oceans every year. We know that about 80% of that comes from land-based sources, and can enter the marine environment via storm drains, through wind and rain, littering, etc. We also know that marine debris can have damaging impacts on marine life and the marine environment through entanglement, ingestion, and smothering of habitat, to name a few. An estimated 60% of all marine debris is made of plastic, most of which never really biodegrades, but rather breaks into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. This is a hot topic right now, and therefore I wanted to go into a bit more detail about this issue and what you can do to help.
By definition, microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in size, and come from both larger pieces of plastic breaking down and “microbeads” found in a number of cosmetic products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes. Because of their small size, they travel down the drain and are often too tiny to be filtered out by sewage treatment plants, thus ending up in the ocean. Billions are ending up in our waterways everyday, where they can act as a sponge and soak up toxins. Fish and other marine life can mistake these microbeads for fish eggs, and they can end up traveling through the food chain, carrying toxins with them. Eventually they can make their way back to us in our food!
There are many cosmetic products available now that do not have plastic – you just need to know what to look for. If you see any of these four ingredients – polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymathy methacrylate – that product contains plastic. Click here to see a list of products from Beat the Microbead that DO NOT contain microplastics.
For more information specifically on plastics and solutions, check out our poster (left) we created in partnership with the California Coastal Commission.
Global Problem, Local Solutions
There are a variety of steps you can take to help prevent marine debris. Simple steps such as reducing the amount of waste you produce, reusing items, picking up trash when you see it, and participating in cleanups can all make a difference.
Help Spread the Word
There are so many great resources out there to help engage students and the public on marine debris, including NAMEPA’s materials and programs. For additional resources and to learn more about marine debris and solutions to this global problem, visit our Education page or check out the NOAA Marine Debris site.
We look forward to posting more soon!