NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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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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Follow Along as NOAA Clears the Waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Two people pull nets from the ocean into a small boat.

Two members of the NOAA dive team remove derelict fishing gear from a reef at Midway Atoll during the 2013 marine debris removal cruise. (NOAA)

Turquoise waters, vibrant coral reefs, white sand beaches—this is often what we think of when we think about far-off islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even the furthest reaches of wilderness, such as the tropical reefs, islands, and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which are hundreds of miles from the main Hawaiian archipelago, can be polluted by human influence. In these shallow waters, roughly 52 tons of plastic fishing nets wash up on coral reefs and shorelines each year.

For nearly two decades, NOAA has been leading an annual mission to clean up these old nets that can smother corals and entangle marine life, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has two staff—Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi—joining the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center scientists and divers on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to document this effort.

A man pulls a net out of the ocean into a small boat.

Chief scientist Mark Manuel hauls derelict nets over the side of a small boat at Maro Reef during the 2014 expedition. (NOAA)

You can follow their journey to remove nets from five areas in the marine monument:

You can keep track of all things related to this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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Celebrate and Protect the Ocean with us on World Ocean Day

Family exploring tidepools in Santa Cruz.

Learn about, explore, and protect your ocean — our ocean. (NOAA)

At NOAA’s National Ocean Service, we’re honoring all things ocean the entire month of June, but if you have only one day to spare, make it this weekend. Sunday, June 8 is World Ocean Day. As we commemorate this interconnected body of water which sustains our planet, consider how each of us can be involved in both celebrating and protecting the ocean.

To celebrate it, we suggest you learn something new about the ocean and share it with at least one friend (perhaps by sharing this blog post). Then, tell us which actions you’re taking to protect the ocean. We have a few examples to get you ready for both.

Learn to Love the Ocean

Did you know that …

You can learn even more about the ocean and coastal areas by visiting a National Marine Sanctuary or National Estuarine Research Reserve and getting a hands-on education.

Act to Protect the Ocean

Plastic water bottle floating in the ocean.

Don’t let this be your vision of World Ocean Day. Be part of the solution. (NOAA)

Now that you’re hopefully feeling inspired by our amazing ocean, you’re ready to do something to protect it from its many threats, such as ocean acidification (global warming’s oceanic counterpart), pollution, and habitat degradation. Here are some ways you can help:

The more we all know and care about the ocean, the more we will do to take care of it. Do your part this World Ocean Day and every day.


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Join the International Coastal Cleanup and Clean up a Beach Near You

Plastic bottle caps picked up from a beach on Midway Atoll.

Help pick up marine debris where you live on September 21 with the International Coastal Cleanup. Marine debris is a global problem, even for places like the middle of the U.S. or a remote Pacific island. The plastic bottle caps shown here were collected from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. (NOAA)

Worried about the amount of trash on our coasts? Do gyres of bobbing plastic whirl through your head each night? Help wipe these worries from your mind and the beach by joining the International Coastal Cleanup on September 21, 2013.

With more than 550,000 volunteers scouring beaches, rivers, and lakes last year, this event is the biggest one-day cleanup of marine debris in the world. In the past, volunteers have turned up everything from bottle caps and plastic bags to toilet seats and cyborg sea-kitties. But each year cigarette butts take home the prize for most common item of debris found on the beach, with 2,117,931 of these toxic pieces of plastic turning up during the 2012 global cleanup alone.

To volunteer at a location near you, visit Ocean Conservancy online. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the annual event, and last year NOAA volunteers cleaned up more than 2.8 tons (nearly 5,700 pounds) of debris from waterways and beaches in DC, Seattle, and Oahu.

Even if you can’t make it to your nearest waterway on September 21, you can still help reduce how much trash makes it to the ocean by planning your own beach cleanup and considering these 10 suggestions from Ocean Conservancy:

10 things you can do for trash free seas


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

Here's hoping your backyard doesn't look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Here’s hoping your backyard doesn’t look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog for their ongoing series, Marine Debris in Your Backyard, which examines the unique challenges of marine debris and its impacts on various parts of the United States.

Join them as they “journey across the nation, looking at the nine different regions the NOAA Marine Debris Program spans and the most common types of debris found in them, and how it may have ended up there.”

So far, they have visited the following places:

  • Alaska, where remote beaches, rough seas, and limited fair weather mean volunteers have only a few months each year to remove anywhere from one to 25 tons of debris per mile of shoreline.
  • Great Lakes, where 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water resides, discarded fishing lines often entangle wildlife, and rumors of a plastic-filled “garbage patch” are beginning to appear.
  • Pacific Islands, where Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a whole lot of open ocean make up the largest region NOAA supports, but where there is so little space for landfills that NOAA helped establish a public-private partnership in Hawaii to turn abandoned fishing gear into a local electricity source.
  • California, where its 1,100 miles of shoreline vary from coastal mountains in the north to well-populated, sandy beaches in the south, and where the nation’s first “Trash Policy” will attempt to control the flow of garbage in California’s waterways.

Stay tuned as they continue working their way around the shores of the United States, and ask yourself, what does marine debris look like where you live? How do you help keep it out of the ocean?

And remember, even if you live hundreds of miles from a beach, a piece of litter such as a cigarette butt (which actually contains plastic) or a plastic bag can still make its way through storm drains and rivers to the ocean. This makes marine debris, no matter where you live, truly everyone’s problem.

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