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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring:


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What You Can Do to Keep Plastic out of the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

A Starbucks coffee cup on a sandy beach by a seabird and people picking up trash.

Keeping a reusable mug in your bag or car can help you remember to opt out of much of the single-use plastic waste that inundates our lives. This coffee cup ended up on a beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, thousands of miles from the nearest city. (NOAA)

“Plastic doesn’t go away.” This point was really driven home for me after watching the video, “Open Your Eyes,” which is narrated by Jeff Bridges and produced by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. It serves to remind us how much single-use, disposable plastic we can go through in an average day—and the impacts of all that plastic on the natural world.

The majority of marine debris found around the world is made of plastic. The world’s more industrialized nations, including the United States, create a huge amount of plastic, and unfortunately too much of it ends up in earth’s waters and along its coastlines. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts [PDF] that in the future, as more countries become industrialized, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will increase as well.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of single-use disposable plastics, which are manufactured to be used once and thrown away, has forced me to look at my own behavior and ask myself, What types of plastic do I personally use in my daily life? How could we all use less plastic? And what could we do to keep the plastic we do use out of the ocean?

Here are a few areas to get started:

  1. Snacks. I tend to dash out of the house with grapes or apple slices in a plastic bag to eat while driving to work or the gym. A logical alternative would be to eat at home and skip the bag (eating in the car is a bad habit anyway!) or pack snacks in a reusable container.
  2. Coffee. On my way to work, I stop for a latte, complete with plastic lid so it won’t spill while I’m drinking it in the car. It would be better to drink it at the coffee shop in their ceramic mugs—it doesn’t take that long and doesn’t require a plastic lid. Better yet is to bring your own to-go mug.
  3. Grocery shopping. When I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, I could skip the provided plastic bags, or opt for paper or reusable mesh produce bags. Other things to consider at the supermarket: Buying foods like yogurt, cereal, and oatmeal in bulk, rather than single-serving packages; choosing a product packaged in cardboard or glass rather than plastic, such as cleaning products, ice cream, milk, condiments, and soda; and bringing your own grocery bags or boxes to get everything home.
  4. Eating out and on the go. At lunch I frequently buy salads to go in those plastic “clamshell” containers; better to bring food from home in a non-disposable container or buy something that doesn’t come encased in plastic. A lot of restaurants automatically include a straw in your iced tea or soda, so asking the wait staff to skip the straw when ordering makes sense (or bring your own glass or metal straw). Opt to drink water and other refreshing beverages out of a reusable glass or bottle, but if necessary, reuse and then recycle any plastic bottles and cups you do use. When taking food home or to-go, bring your own resusable containers and utensils, and skip the plastic forks, spoons, and to-go containers.
  5. Dry cleaning. Let your dry cleaners know you’d prefer to pick up your clean clothes without the plastic coverings.
  6. Cosmetics. Cosmetics and personal care manufacturers are phasing out polyethylene microbeads from cosmetics, cleansers, and toothpastes, which have been banned in the United States, but until the phase-out is complete, check labels and avoid products with “polyethylene” in the ingredients. Because of their tiny size, microplastics which are usually added to products as an abrasive (like exfoliants) pass through water treatment systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes.
  7. Trash cans. Open and overflowing trash cans (or recycling bins) don’t do much to keep trash off the street and out of our waterways. Use waste containers with a lid, and never toss trash on top of an overflowing trash can. Take it with you instead and recycle what you can.
  8. Beaches. When you visit the beach, pack out all your trash and pick up any trash you do see there (and report it with our Marine Debris Tracker smartphone app). Better yet, join beach cleanups to help remove trash from our waterways and coasts (which helps keep bigger plastics from breaking down into microplastics).
  9. Science. Join citizen scientists around the country and adopt a shoreline to help monitor how much and what kinds of plastic and other marine debris wash up each month. You can check out an existing project near you, such as the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and the projects in National Marine Sanctuaries up and down the West Coast. Or start your own dedicated effort using these tools and resources and report your data to our national database.
  10. Community. We can all talk to our friends, family, students, or coworkers about the issue of plastics in the ocean and share this list of actions they can take too.

These steps are just a start, but they’re all things we can do with minimum impact to our daily lives. Even incorporating one of these actions into your life can make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean.

As the lead federal agency for addressing this problem, the NOAA Marine Debris Program funds research on the harmful effects of debris, such as plastics, to the marine environment and efforts to clean up our nation’s coastal waters. They have lots of education and outreach materials with more information about the many ways we, as individuals, can help remedy this growing problem of plastics in our ocean.


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].


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How Beach Cleanups Help Keep Microplastics out of the Garbage Patches

Basket full of faded, old plastic bottles on a beach.

Cleaning up a few plastic bottles on a beach can make a big difference when it comes to keeping microplastics from entering the ocean. (NOAA)

These days plastic seems to be everywhere; unfortunately, that includes many parts of the ocean, from the garbage patches to Arctic sea ice. With this pollution increasingly in the form of tiny plastic bits, picking up a few bottles left on the beach can feel far removed from the massive problem of miniscule plastics floating out at sea.

However, these two issues are more closely connected than you may think.

But how do we get from a large plastic water bottle, blown out of an overfilled trash can on a beach, to innumerable plastic pieces no bigger than a sesame seed—and known as microplastics—suspended a few inches below the ocean surface thousands of miles from land?

The answer starts with the sun and an understanding of how plastic deteriorates in the environment.

The Science of Creating Microplastics

Plastic starts breaking down, or degrading, when exposed to light and high temperatures from the sun. Ultraviolet B radiation (UVB), the same part of the light spectrum that can cause sunburns and skin cancer, starts this process for plastics.

This process, known as photo-oxidation, is a chemical reaction that uses oxygen to break the links in the molecular chains that make up plastic. It also happens much faster on land than in the comparatively cool waters of the ocean.

For example, a hot day at the beach can heat the sandy surface—and plastic trash sitting on it—up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The ocean, on the other hand, gets darker and colder the deeper you go, and the average temperatures at its surface in July can range from 45 degrees Fahrenheit near Adak Island, Alaska, to 89 degrees in Cannon Bay, Florida.

Back on that sunny, warm beach, a plastic water bottle starts to show the effects of photo-oxidation. Its surface becomes brittle and tiny cracks start forming. Those larger shards of plastic break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, but they keep roughly the same molecular structure, locked into hydrogen and carbon chains. A brisk wind or child playing on the beach may cause this brittle outer layer of plastic to crumble. The tide washes these now tiny plastics into the ocean.

Once in the ocean, the process of degrading slows down for the remains of this plastic bottle. It can sink below the water surface, where less light and heat penetrate and less oxygen is available. In addition, plastics can quickly become covered in a thin film of marine life, which further blocks light from reaching the plastic and breaking it down.

An Incredible Journey

Lots of tiny pieces of plastic covering rocks.

Microplastics, tiny bits of plastic measuring 5 millimeters or less, are often the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down on land before making it into the ocean. They can also come from cosmetics and fleece clothing. (NOAA)

In general, plastic breaks down much, much more slowly in the ocean than on land. That means plastic objects that reach the ocean either directly from a boat (say trash or nets from a fishing vessel) or washed into the sea before much degradation has happened are much less likely to break into smaller pieces that become microplastics. This also applies to plastics that sink below the ocean surface into the water column or seafloor.

Instead, plastic that has spent time heating up and breaking down on land is most likely to produce the microplastics eventually accumulating in ocean gyres or garbage patches, a conclusion supported by the research of North Carolina State University professor Anthony Andrady and others.

Of course, microplastics in the form of “microbeads” in face wash and other cosmetics or microfibers in fleece clothing also can reach the ocean by slipping through waste water treatment systems.

However, regularly patrolling your favorite beach or waterway and cleaning up any plastic or other marine debris can go a long way to keeping millions of tiny microplastics—some so tiny they can only be seen with a microscope—from reaching the garbage patches and other areas of the ocean.

The great thing is anyone can do this and you don’t have to wait for the International Coastal Cleanup each September to get started.

Find more tips and resources to help you on your way:


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Keep Your Holidays Happy and Your Impact Low

Red bows and evergreen bows on a fence on a beach.

Make sure your holidays leave the coasts clean and bright. (Creative Commons: Susan Smith, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

Across the United States, the winter holiday season is upon us and many people are gathering with family and friends to celebrate. But as you go about trimming trees, lighting candles, and nipping eggnog, keep in mind a few tips for lowering your impact on the ocean.

After all, a clean and healthy environment sounds like a great gift to give others—along with world peace.

  • Host a no- or low-waste holiday soiree. Set out reusable dishes for guests or use recyclable items and have a clearly labeled recycling bin at the ready. Compost napkins, half-eaten gingerbread people, and that fruitcake leftover from last year. Get more tips from the Marine Debris Blog. As they point out, “According to the EPA, the volume of household waste in the United States generally increases 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day—about 1 million extra tons.”
  • Do your holiday shopping with reusable bags. Plastic shopping bags are among the top 10 items collected each year at the International Coastal Cleanup.
  • Consider giving gifts that won’t end up on the shelf or in the trash. It takes a lot of oil (which can spill) to produce and transport the many items for sale starting Black Friday. What about giving the people you care about gifts they can experience, such as tickets to a show or gift certificate to their favorite restaurant? Or something they can use with little or no accompanying waste, such as homemade hand salve or your famous family latke recipe, along with a tasty batch to go with it?
  • Keep your gifts under reusable wraps. Skip the plastic ribbons and bows and wrap your gifts in stylish fabric gift bags (which the recipient can then re-gift). At the very least, save what wrappings you can and use them again next time.
  • Avoid giving gifts that contain tiny plastic microbeads. It may be tempting to give your sister-in-law a bottle of Cinnamon Stick Glitterburst Exfoliating Body Scrub, but check the label first. Personal care items, such as cleansers and body wash, often contain “microscrubbers” made of plastic that go down the drain, most times making it past waste treatment and into rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Look for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredient list.
  • If you have a blast, clean it up. If you use fireworks to ring in the New Year, please do so responsibly. Fireworks can shatter into little plastic bits, which can be swept into storm drains and end up in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Volunteer for a beach cleanup on January 1, track what you pick up, and make sure marine debris doesn’t pollute 2015.
  • Give public transportation the green light. Holly and mistletoe shouldn’t be the only green part of this season. When possible and safe, opt for lower-impact transportation options: walking, biking, or public transportation. NOAA responded to 138 oil and chemical spills in the past year. Less oil used means less oil transported and potentially spilled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more great suggestions for greening your holiday season and all winter long. Do you have any tips? How are you keeping your holiday season happy and light on the planet?


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.


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Living in the Age of Plastic: Conserving Plastic vs. Conserving the Environment from Plastic

Plastic spoons.

Plastic of the “disposable” variety. (Alex Smith, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

Today, we live an era dominated by plastics—versatile, ubiquitous, “disposable” plastics. In this “Age of Plastic,” enter Odile Madden, a research scientist studying historic plastic artifacts at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

Using her training in materials science, Madden works to understand the materials—from their condition to their chemical composition—used in Smithsonian exhibits. She preserves these materials for as long as possible so that everyone who visits the museums can continue to enjoy these pieces of cultural history. The sensitive nature of the work demands non-invasive techniques that will not harm the artifact. It’s a cool job.

It also stands in stark contrast to environmental conservation, which depends on materials that break down quickly and do not stick around a long time. For example, an abandoned fishing net drifting in the open ocean will have a much lower chance of accidentally ensnaring marine life (“ghost-fishing”) if it breaks down quickly.

As a marine biologist with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, I work on the opposite end of the plastics spectrum from Madden. She and her team of cultural conservationists strive to maintain the integrity of valuable plastic artifacts, while at NOAA we’re trying to conserve marine environments by, for example, getting rid of plastic debris.

Madden’s continued interest in pursuing the technical and philosophical issues surrounding plastic use prompted her to coordinate the recent interdisciplinary symposium, “The Age of Plastic: Ingenuity and Responsibility.” Presentations covered everything from the space program’s use of plastics to the history of synthetic fibers. They also examined the challenges of preserving plastic in museums and of recycling plastics at the end of their lifecycles and had an open look at how plastics are perhaps indispensable in science and human health.

Nancy Wallace, program director for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, participated in an equally engaging panel discussion, where she highlighted the potential hazards of plastics that unintentionally end up as marine debris. (In other words, we brought up the negative side of plastics.)

Still, I walked away with two particularly refreshing perspectives from outside my world of marine debris:

  1. The difference between “conservationists”: Museums use “conservation” to mean saving materials, while environmentalists use “conservation” to mean saving the natural environment. Museums want the material to last as long as possible while we at NOAA would be happy if plastics degraded quickly into its molecular components: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. (The scientist in me needs to point out that the word “plastic” captures incredible variation in material type and structure. “Synthetic polymer” is more accurate, but alas, it doesn’t have public cachet.)
  1. The difference in values: The use of a material often defines its value. Materials that are meant to be art are arguably more valuable than materials used in life. Probably few people would disagree that there is an intrinsic difference in a resin sculpture housed at the Smithsonian versus the one-time-use spoon you pick up at the cafeteria. But we must ensure that materials are used and disposed of correctly, in ways that respect their value. Plastics are valuable— they were invented for a reason and serve a lot of fantastic purposes— but have become significantly devalued in today’s throw-away culture.
A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb circa 1890.

A cellulose nitrate Victorian Black Comb (ca 1890). Celluloid novelties made to imitate precious materials such as ivory and tortoise shell were popular from about 1880 to the 1930s. (Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center)

I’d like to draw attention to another, unfortunately ironic, conservation connection. In his keynote speech, Robert Friedel of the University of Maryland pointed out that in the early days of synthetics, objects were created to imitate natural materials. In part, this was done to stop poaching of hawksbill sea turtles for tortoiseshell and elephant tusks for ivory. I thought, how interesting: Materials once used to conserve nature now occur in such quantity that natural environments are at risk from them.

Nevertheless, it was clear from this symposium that people care: both about preserving museum artifacts and about the baby albatross that chokes on ingested plastic bits. There are so many different, equally valuable perspectives on the use of plastics. All of these perspectives are needed if we are to move forward, as a society, with a more thoughtful approach to material use and conservation.

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