NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!


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Southeast: Educators SORT it out

By: Leah Henry

The Southeast United States has over 18,000 miles of diverse tidal shoreline, including rocky cliffs, sand dunes, grasslands, wetlands, and mangrove forests. It provides valuable habitat to wildlife, as well as places for marine debris to accumulate.

On July 7, fifteen motivated elementary through high school level educators filed into the Project SORT Marine Debris Workshop with tote bags and smiles, eager to learn more about the environmental threat marine debris poses to their region and what they can do to prevent it. For one week in Savannah, Georgia these educators lived and breathed marine debris.

During the workshop, they heard about the latest marine debris science and research, and everyone had a chance to get their hands dirty during teacher-led activities. These educators learned about different types of marine debris from storm generated debris to microbeads, how to be better ocean stewards through citizen science and shoreline monitoring, and how to engage students in field microscope construction and marine debris video game design using existing or free resources.

“When we did the survey this week, we found tiny micro plastics in the sand from Tybee Island that came from the ocean, and when we did the macro plastics survey on Wassaw Island (a national wildlife refuge), we found litter and lots of nets, fishing line, and other debris that had washed up on shore.” said Casey Woods, elementary school teacher at Cedar Ridge.

In one activity, educators placed plastics of all kinds in a small salt water tank. They noted which types of plastic floated, sank, or became suspended in the middle. This information is important when we consider which animals come into contact with plastic in the wild. Some marine animals live and feed at the surface, while others feed on the bottom or somewhere in between. Pairing the plastic’s position with the animal’s location could help educators and their students ponder which types of plastic might pose the highest threat to a marine animal.

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The workshop also featured the Project SORT team’s demonstration of newly designed classroom activities at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, where workshop participants received copies to assist them in their classrooms.

We look forward to seeing how all the educators successfully incorporate marine debris into their existing curriculum and encourage their students to become ocean stewards too!

The Project SORT Workshop was led by Dodie Sanders and funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Prevention through Outreach and Education grant.


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Keep “The Land of the Free,” Free of Debris

By: Asma Mahdi

Fireworks over San Diego Bay in California on the 4th of July.

Fireworks over San Diego Bay in California on the 4th of July.

On Friday night, many of us from coast to coast will watch spectacular fireworks takeover starry skies with brightly colored chrysanthemum bursts of red, white, and blue. It’s the Fourth of July – a day for friends and families to rejoice in our nation’s independence and jump into summertime festivities. It’s often an afterthought, but after the bursts of lights cease and the crowd clears, who’s going to clean-up the mess?

The morning after a fireworks display, not surprisingly, is a dirty day at the beach. Pieces of litter can easily be traced back to activities from the day before with a noticeable increase in firework debris along the coastline. You can find spent plastic shells, tubes, wings, and other small remnants in pockets where fireworks launched just a day before. These plastic pieces, especially hard plastics, are a potential human health hazard, with a risk of injury, and can be easily mistaken for food by marine animals, especially birds.

There are simple steps we can all take to prevent this debris from entering the ocean. If you plan to celebrate this Fourth of July with fireworks, keep the “land of the free,” free of debris:

  • Most importantly, be safe and make sure it is legal to use fireworks in your state. Check this listing at USA.gov to see your state’s firework regulation laws. Local regulations vary, so be sure to check those out, too.
  • Visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission website to learn how to properly and safely handle and dispose of used fireworks.
  • Volunteer for a beach cleanup after the Fourth of July to help remove debris left behind.

There are several cleanups events nationwide. Participate in one of these post-celebration beach cleanups or find a cleanup near your region:

Washington: Host: OurBeach.org via Grassroots Garbage Gang, Long Beach Peninsula Saturday, July 5

Oregon: Host: SOLVE Seaside Beach Saturday, July 5, 8am – 11am

Northern California: Host: Save our Shores Various sites in Santa Cruz and Monterey County Friday, July 4th (noon – 4pm), and Saturday, July 5 (8am – 10am)

Southern California: Host: Heal the Bay Manhattan Beach Saturday, July 19, 10am – noon

Hawaii: Host: ProjectAware Magic Island Beach Cleanup Saturday, July 5, 8am – noon

Great Lakes: Host: Alliance for the Great Lakes Various locations at times, click link for more info Saturday, July 5

New Hampshire: Host: Blue Ocean Society Jenness Beach Wed, July 9, 6:30 PM

Massachusetts: Host: Surfride Foundation, MassachusettsChristian A Herter Park Sat, July 12, 2:30pm – 4:30pm

Florida: Host: City of Maderia Beach Archibald Park Saturday, July 5, 8am – 11am

Florida: Host: Keepers of the Coast Various locations Saturday, July 5, 5pm – 7pm

 

 


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Not Just Hot Air: Celebrate July 4 Without Balloon Releases

By: Leah Henry

Releasing a helium-filled balloon into the air may seem liberating, symbolic, and even celebratory. It is also littering, because after balloons go up, they also come down.

Being that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, the chance that the deflated balloon will land in a receptacle instead of our ocean is highly unlikely. In fact, volunteers all over the country often find balloons when doing marine debris cleanups.

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So why does this matter? Those lifeless pieces of rubber, latex, or plastic wind up in the ocean, where marine animals may mistake them for food and eat them - blocking the animal from eating the food it needs to stay alive. Sadly, the strings or ribbons can wrap around their necks, fins, or flippers, cutting into their flesh causing severe damage or preventing them from hunting.

If you use balloons for a celebration, please don’t release them into the air. For outdoor celebrations, here are some alternatives:

  • Plant a ceremonious tree.
  • Use pinwheels from used materials.
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Dedicate a park bench.

If you do use balloons, secure them tightly and think twice before you let go!


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Illinois Bans Plastic Microbeads from Personal Care Products

By: Nancy Wallace

A microbead found in Kittery, ME. Photo: Rozalia Project.

A microbead found in Kittery, ME. Photo: Rozalia Project.

This month, Illinois became the first state to ban the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The industry-supported ban comes after a study released last year by researchers at 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia showed high levels of microplastics, including the beads, in the Great Lakes.

State legislatures in California, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio are considering bans or other legislation on plastic microbeads, citing concern over how these plastic pieces will impact fish and other wildlife. Some major manufacturers, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal have also pledged to phase plastic microbeads out of their products and search for alternatives.

Many face washes and body scrubs contain tiny plastic spheres – sometimes labeled “microscrubbers” – meant to exfoliate skin. Take a look at the ingredient lists on personal care bottles; if they say polyethylene and polypropylene, then there is plastic in them. Once rinsed off, the beads go down the drain. In most cases, they are so tiny that they slip through wastewater treatment plants and into nearby waterways.

When microbeads enter the marine environment or Great Lakes, they are considered a form of “microplastic” marine debris. Microplastics come from several sources. They are sometimes manufactured small, such as microbeads or resin pellets used in plastic manufacturing. Or, they are shards of what used to be larger plastic items, such as bottles or containers that found their way into the environment. NOAA defines microplastics as any plastic smaller than 5 mm in size.

Plastics never really go away when they’re in rivers, oceans, or lakes. Instead, they can last decades, fragmenting over and over again into small pieces. There’s an unknown amount of microplastics in our environment, but they are turning up everywhere, even in Arctic sea ice.

The big deal is that some species of marine life mistake plastic for food, especially bite-sized microplastics. Scientists across the world, including here at NOAA, are working to better understand exactly how microplastics and the chemicals in them impact wildlife once they’re ingested – or if the chemicals transfer through the food web.

Removing unnecessary plastic microbeads in cosmetics won’t take care of the microplastics problem in the ocean and Great Lakes entirely, but it eliminates one known source. The recent movement in Illinois is a great example of how industry, government, non-profits, and academia can come together to implement action. As we continue finding solutions to marine debris, let’s remember that these kinds of collaborative efforts are critical to our success.


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Apple Includes Marine Debris Tracker in “Apps We Can’t Live Without”

By: Dianna Parker

Instagram, Candy Crush, Pinterest, Tumblr… Marine Debris Tracker.

These are all “Apps We Can’t Live Without,” according to a new video Apple debuted at the Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. The Marine Debris Tracker is a smartphone application co-developed by Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia and the NOAA Marine Debris Program. It lets you quickly log and report marine debris you find anywhere in the world. Take a look and download it today: http://www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/


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The End is In Sight: Summer Should Bring Less Debris to Pacific NW

By: Dianna Parker

Our partners in the Pacific Northwest have noticed an increase in marine debris on shorelines this past month, including small vessels that likely washed out to sea during the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Four boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone. The flurry of activity may seem unusual and sudden, coming after a relatively long stretch where we still saw some debris — but not this much.  So what’s the deal? Why are we getting a spike now?

Here’s what Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, has to say about possible reasons for the increase:

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.

[...]

Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

So, to recap: Winter winds push nutrient-depleted water onshore and bring debris with it. As Pacific Northwest residents may recall, there were a series of big winter storms in February and March.

Amy goes on to describe a period known as the “spring transition” that can occur anytime between March and June, where a change in winds ushers nearshore surface water back offshore. Then, nutrient-rich water moves in (we call this “upwelling”). The timing of this transition period may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches. The later the transition, the more time the debris pushed toward shore from winter storms has to reach shore.

According to researchers, we’re in that transition period now, which means the end to the spike is near:

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April).

[...]

The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.

 


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First-Ever Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan Released

By: Sarah Lowe

Last year, the Great Lakes made headlines after researchers found large concentrations of microplastics in them, in some cases in larger quantities than reported in the ocean. While this was news to some people – marine debris in the Great Lakes?! – plastics and other litter, abandoned vessels, and derelict fishing gear have been a long-standing problem for the world’s largest surface freshwater source.

The Great Lakes community recognized the marine debris issue and has been working for the past three years to tackle it. Today, on their behalf, the NOAA Marine Debris Program unveils the Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan —the first of its kind for the region.

The action plan provides scientists, governments, stakeholders, and decision makers a road map for strategic progress to see that the Great Lakes, its coasts, people, and wildlife are free from the impacts of marine debris. It centers around a mission to combat debris through an increased understanding of the problem, preventative actions, reductions in impacts, education and outreach, and collaborative efforts from diverse groups.

Marine debris is more commonly thought of as an ocean problem, but the Great Lakes region, with its complex system of habitats, wetlands, rivers, and tributaries, is also affected. This plan focuses on debris generated on land, which is often blown, swept, or washed out into the lakes. It comes from littering, dumping in rivers and streams, storm water discharges, poor waste management practices, and industrial losses during production, transportation, and processing.

The plan encompasses work that dedicated partners, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program, will undertake in the next five years (2014-2019).  Due to the complexity of marine debris issues, there is a role for everyone in the implementation of this plan, including the private citizen who picks up litter from our beaches and watersheds; federal, state, county, and local government agencies that are mandated to address the threat of marine debris; private businesses and industry that get involved to serve their communities; and nongovernmental and academic organizations that support a wide range of activities like cleanup, research, education, and outreach.

To view the plan, visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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Scientists Found Microplastics in Arctic Sea Ice

By: Dianna Parker

Arctic sea ice regularly makes the news because, well, it’s declining to record lows, but this month scientists discovered another alarming observation. According to a new study, microplastics were found frozen in the ice, and there are a lot of them.

Rachel Obbard, an engineering professor at Dartmouth, and her colleagues wrote in the journal Earth’s Future that, “Arctic sea ice from remote locations contains concentrations of microplastics at least two orders of magnitude greater than those that have been previously reported in highly contaminated surface waters, such as those of the Pacific Gyre.”

That leaves us wondering: if Arctic sea ice acts as a “sink” for microplastics, what will happen when the ice melts and what are the potential ecosystem impacts?


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ICC Volunteers Cleaned Up Most Trash Ever in 2013

By: Dianna Parker

The Ocean Conservancy reported today that volunteers at last year’s International Coastal Cleanup picked up more than 12 million pounds of trash, the most ever collected in the event’s history. This one-day cleanup, which typically takes place in September, is the largest annual volunteer effort aimed at improving the health of the ocean.

OC_infoThe amount of trash that the nearly 650,000 volunteers (including me!) picked up would fill roughly 38 Olympic-size swimming pools and is equivalent to the weight of 823 male African elephants, according to Ocean Conservancy. The amount of fishing line collected would go up and over Mount Everest five times, and the number of bottle caps found would carpet three football fields when laid side by side.

We at NOAA are often asked exactly how much marine debris is out there, and in truth, it’s hard to say. There are estimates, but there is no way to monitor the total amount of debris put into the ocean and waterways across the globe daily. The few hard numbers we have are what we pick up, and they are staggering.

Think about it: 12 million pounds, although a huge number, is only the amount we were able to clean up during a one-day annual event. Imagine what we didn’t get to on the shorelines and what will be there tomorrow. Imagine how much we can’t reach in the ocean.

Cleanups, more than anything, demonstrate the need for prevention. We must stop debris at the source, which is us — people — and our choices. We’re working on finding solutions here at NOAA and along with partners such as Ocean Conservancy, but you can help at home. Reduce the amount you throw away – because there is no “away” — and reuse what you can. Don’t litter. Become familiar with local recycling efforts, and help educate others.

You can also organize or join cleanups, which take place often across the country.  The ICC is on September 20 this year, so mark your calendars, and we’ll see you there.


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Tots Track Trash

By: Leah Henry

Marine Debris Tracker guru and Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia, Jenna Jambeck, applied marine debris citizen science to the youngest age group yet! A small school yard cleanup in Athens, Georgia became a toddler show and tell, with “Look at this!” squealed as each tiny pair of (gloved) hands retrieved candy wrappers, bottles, and pieces of paper and plastic.

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Jenna logged each scrap into the Marine Debris Tracker, and the little ones learned a valuable lesson about where trash goes (and should). Though the 2 and 3-year-olds were excited to pick up the mismanaged trash,  the teachers holding the collection bags were appalled at the 63 items found on school grounds in just 15 minutes!

With Marine Debris Tracker, it just takes a few seconds to  easily report via a smartphone application where you find marine debris or litter anywhere in the world… and then prevent it from impacting our oceans.

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