NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Don’t Get the Winter Blues—Get the Winter Can-Do’s Instead!

It may be cold and grey outside, but don’t let it get you down! Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean our efforts to reduce the impacts of marine debris need to dwindle. There are still lots of ways we can make a difference in the fight against marine debris, even when the winter has slowed things down.

A cleanup crew moving debris into a boat with snowy mountain in the background.

A cleanup crew picks up debris in Alaska. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Don’t forget your 3R’s, which make a difference at any time of year! Reduce the amount of single-use materials that you use. Reuse items when you can. And for the items that you do use, don’t forget to recycle whenever possible (check out this blog on recycling to make sure you’re doing it right!).

Spread the word! It doesn’t have to be warm outside to spread the word to friends and family. Preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem and we can do that through education and outreach. Many people simply don’t understand the issue or don’t know how they can help, so get the word out there! If you’re still in school or involved in teaching, consider incorporating one of our activities or lessons into your classroom. Use the activities demonstrated in our Trash Talk Webinar to discuss marine debris in your boy/girl scout troop. Watch our Trash Talk videos and talk about marine debris with your family. No matter how seemingly small, you can make a big difference.

You can still get involved in cleanup events! There may be fewer cleanups at this time of year due to the cold weather in a lot of areas, but there are still opportunities to clean up! Find one in your area or organize one yourself (remember safety first!) and use the Marine Debris Tracker App! If you haven’t already, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, which lists cleanups around the country.

Don’t get the winter blues—get the winter can-do’s and continue the fight against marine debris!


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Marine Debris Efforts Around the Country

We’ve spent the last year highlighting marine debris projects in various regions of the country. However, the NOAA Marine Debris Program also supports efforts that are national in scope. Check out some of the national projects that are currently underway:

The BoatU.S. Foundation is working to remove debris in both the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. With support from a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant, they are working with two TowBoatU.S. towing and salvage partners to remove two large nets in Ocean City, Maryland, and to remove a derelict vessel in Lake Erie. They’re also assessing the impacts of some of this debris, as well as monitoring the effects of the removal. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Pictures of derelict nets on a boat.

The BoatU.S. Foundation removed two derelict nets from Ocean City, MD as part of their project. (Photo Credit: Rick Younger)

The BoatU.S. Foundation is also working on preventing marine debris through a project supported by the Fishing for Energy program. Fishing for Energy is a partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. With this support, the BoatU.S. Foundation is working to prevent derelict fishing gear by developing a national education and outreach program to teach recreational boaters how to avoid set fishing gear. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A close-up of derelict nets and ropes.

The BoatU.S. Foundation’s project through the Fishing for Energy program is working to prevent derelict fishing gear. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Another Fishing for Energy-supported project is being run by the National Sea Grant Law Center at the University of Mississippi. This project is working to assess innovative methods for addressing derelict fishing gear from around the country, to determine if these methods could be implemented in other areas. They’re also working to identify opportunities to prevent gear loss due to interactions with passing vessels. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A close-up of derelict crab pots.

The Fishing for Energy project with the National Sea Grant Law Center is working to assess derelict fishing gear programs. (Photo Credit: G. Bradt, NH Sea Grant)

Keep your eye on our blog as we continue to highlight marine debris projects from around the country throughout the year!


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Celebrate MLK Service Day by Joining a Shoreline Cleanup!

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and let’s remember that it’s not just a day off from work and school, but a day to think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he did for our country. To commemorate a great man who spent his life serving others, this day has become a time to come together to give back to our communities and volunteer our time to a good cause. If you’d like to participate in Martin Luther King, Jr. Service Day, consider joining a cleanup in your area. Cleaning up your local shoreline or even just your neighborhood can help prevent trash from becoming marine debris and can help to create a healthy ocean that we can all enjoy.

Groups across the country host cleanup events throughout the weekend and volunteers are always welcome. If you can’t make it to an organized event, consider either organizing your own or just grabbing a trash bag and some gloves and cleaning up your local area. No effort is too small. If you choose to serve on your own, please remember “safety first!” Interested in getting involved in cleanups in the future, too? Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to get updates on upcoming cleanups around the country.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Service Day!

Kids pick up debris.

Volunteers work to clean up their local area at a cleanup event in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: NOAA)


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Influence of Various Aqueous Conditions on Additives Releasing From, and Pollutants Sorbing To, Microplastic Debris

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Rob Hale, Guest Blogger and Professor in the Department of Aquatic Health Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)

Plastics are an increasing problem in our ocean and waterways. The plastic products we use, and hence those that find their way into the environment, are made of different polymers. These include products ranging from disposable water bottles, fishing gear, electronics, microbeads from personal care products, to furniture. Chemical additives are inserted into many plastic polymers to modify plastic properties such as color, flexibility, weather resistance, and flame retardancy. These additives may leach out over time, depending on the chemical structure of both the plastic polymer and the additive. Unfortunately, some additives are persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic. In addition, pollutants already in the water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can sorb to the surface of plastic debris. After exposure to light or abrasion, plastics fragment into ever smaller particles called microplastics. Microplastics can have different shapes and sizes, which not only affect their leaching and sorption behavior, but can influence what organisms either intentionally or inadvertently consume them. Knowledge of the relative importance of all these factors is critical to our understanding of the effects of discarded plastics in our ocean.

Figure showing that additives may leach out of plastic particles over time, while other contaminants can sorb to plastic particles.

Additives may leach out of plastic particles over time, while other contaminants can sorb to plastic particles. (Credit: NOAA)

We chose to study these interactions and used a laboratory environment so we could individually control the factors of interest. We investigated different combinations of plastics (polyurethane foam, polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride or “PVC”), additives, and water pollutants. We also examined the effect of microplastic size and the degree of weathering. We first ground various types of plastics to different size ranges using an ultra-cold grinder to make them brittle (check out this video of the process). Following the grinding of the plastics to microplastic size, we took photos of the microplastics through an electron microscope (see image below) and measured their surface areas. The plastics were then weathered by being exposed to ultraviolet light, as they might experience at the water’s surface or on a beach. Next, we placed a small amount of weathered or unweathered microplastics in a column containing sand (see figure below) and leached them with waters of differing temperature, salinity, and organic carbon content (including imitation animal digestive fluids). The water exiting the column was then collected and analyzed to see what additives were released.

We found that the type of plastic polymer greatly affected its surface area after grinding. Smaller microplastic particles, which have a greater surface area ratio, generally released additives at an increased rate. Polyurethane foam was particularly interesting due to the amount of flame retardants released to the water. Salinity had little effect on additive leaching. In contrast, higher water temperature, such as found in the tropics and the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals, caused more chemicals to be released. Leaching the microplastics with water containing humic acids caused the release of even greater amounts of additives, especially of flame retardants. Humic acids are natural chemicals found in high levels in estuaries, coastal sediments, swamps, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants (where many microplastics are trapped). Leaching the microplastics with synthetic digestive fluids, similar to what occurs in an organism, caused the most additives to be released to the water.

The results of this research allowed us to distinguish what factors increase the release of potentially harmful chemicals from discarded plastics to the environment. Such information is critical to protect living resources, as well as human health. Results will also allow us to design safer plastic products in the future.

For more information on this project, check out the Marine Debris Clearinghouse and the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, where more results will be shared soon.


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Different Types of Plastic Litter Lead to Different Types of Effects in Animals

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Chelsea M. Rochman, Guest Blogger and Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto

When I go to the beach, anywhere in the world, I can kneel down and find small bits of plastic litter in the sand—these bits are called “microplastics.” Microplastic has become a common pollutant. It can be found globally, from the equator to the poles, in the ocean, lakes, and rivers. Microplastics are also eaten by and can be found inside nearly 700 species of animals, which likely mistake them for food.

If you take a closer look at this litter, you will notice that it is diverse— a handful of microplastics looks like party confetti, with several colors and shapes. This is because there are many types of microplastics that enter the environment. You can likely see some of the various types from looking at the plastic products in your home. Microplastics generally come from larger plastic items (like water bottles and other household items) that have been degraded into several pieces via the sunlight, wind, and waves. If you look at your plastic items, you’ll notice a recycle code which indicates the plastic type; because there are several plastic types, there are several types of microplastics in the ocean. Thus, animals in the ocean, lakes, and rivers eat a diverse mixture of this material.

Ingesting this plastic debris can be harmful to animals. But, because all plastics are not the same, we were curious how different types of microplastics may impact animals differently. To help answer this question, we designed an experiment in our laboratory that fed different types of common microplastics to prey and predators in a freshwater food chain. We chose to experiment with plastics that belong to recycle codes 1 (polyethylene terephthalate, or “PETE,” used in polyester clothing and water bottles), 4 (polyethylene, used in plastic bags), 3 (polyvinyl chloride, or “PVC,” used in plastic pipes and bank cards), and 6 (polystyrene, used in food take-out containers and disposable cutlery). Because plastics in nature also accumulate chemicals from the environment, we spiked some of these plastics with the organic pollutant, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). We fed environmentally-relevant concentrations of these plastics, both with and without PCBs, to freshwater clams (prey) for 28 days. To measure how the exposure of contaminated prey may impact a predator, we then fed some of the clams to white sturgeon (predator), which are fish that naturally eat clams.

Figure showing various experimental groups fed to clams, which are then fed to sturgeon.

Various treatments were used to investigate the effects of different plastic types on prey and predators. These included feeding clams with a negative control (no plastic, no PCBs), a PCB control (no plastic, with PCBs), and then each type of plastic both without PCBs and with PCBs. Sturgeon were then fed clams exposed to each treatment. (Figure Credit: Chelsea Rochman)

We tested for several effects in clams and sturgeon exposed to each type of microplastic. We then compared these measurements to control treatments (clams and fish that were not exposed to any microplastics or PCBs). We compared changes in protein levels related to the metabolism of toxic compounds and reproduction, abnormalities in cells and tissues, changes in feeding behavior, condition factor (determined using standard weight versus length measurements, often used to measure health), and survival.

We found that the impacts to animals varied by plastic type— using several different plastics that were all the same shape and size, and we found greater overall effects from some plastic types and no effects from others. Just like chemical pollutants, our results suggest that not all microplastics should be lumped into one generalized contaminant group. Instead of only thinking about concentrations of microplastics that may be hazardous, we might also consider different sources and types of microplastics that may be hazardous. This may help ease some of the pressure on both resource managers and industry groups.

For more information on this project, check out the Marine Debris Clearinghouse and the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, where more specific results will be available soon.


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Can Tiny Plastic Particles in the Ocean Introduce Contaminants to the Food Web?

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Amy NS Siuda (Eckerd College), Kara Lavender Law (Sea Education Association), and Tony Andrady (Helix Science), Guest Bloggers and Principal Investigators for the Research Project “Investigating the Influence of Microplastics (and contaminants) on the Grazing Behavior of Copepods”

 Can the tiniest plastic particles in the ocean introduce contaminants to the food web? This very question was at the heart of our recent research project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. As a first step to answering this question, we proposed to test whether microscopic copepods, the most abundant multicellular organisms in the ocean, would eat contaminated plastic particles.

Microplastic debris (less than 5mm) can originate from the likes of facial and body washes in the form of “microbeads,” or may start as larger, more recognizable, objects that break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Microscopic plastic particles can be as small as the single-celled algae that form the base of the marine food web (30 times smaller than a grain of salt!) and which are the primary diet for copepods.

A microscope image of a copepod.

An Acartia tonsa copepod, approximately 1mm long, as used in this experiment. (Photo Credit: Dam Lab, UConn)

Unfortunately, this plastic debris is often contaminated with toxic chemicals. Plastics can absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants present at trace levels in seawater, and some of the chemical additives mixed in during the manufacturing process can be toxic as well. When marine organisms ingest chemical-laden plastic pieces, some of the pollutants may be released within the gut of the animal and absorbed into body tissue. Although it is uncertain how much of these harmful chemicals enter marine animals due to ingestion of plastic debris in the ocean, laboratory experiments suggest there may be reason for concern.

Biological oceanographers often use simple bottle incubation experiments to isolate and observe interactions between microorganisms. Using this model, and using three common pollutants (nonylphenol, decabromodiphenyl ether, and dicholoro-diphenyl-tricholorethane—say that five times fast!) to contaminate select microbeads, we exposed individual copepods to one of four diets: microalgae, uncontaminated microplastic beads, contaminated microplastic beads, and a mixed diet of microalgae and contaminated microplastic beads.

Copepods in the wild tend to avoid eating naturally-toxic microalgae, so we were interested to learn if copepods exposed to a mixed diet would indiscriminately eat contaminated microbeads along with the algae, or if they would somehow sense and avoid eating contaminated microbeads altogether. If copepods eat the microbeads, there is potential for biological accumulation of contaminants that begins at the very base of the food web.

An image of a woman working in a lab around a lab setup.

Here, a bottle experiment is in progress. To keep algae cells and plastic particles well-mixed in the solution, bottles were affixed to a slowly-rotating plankton wheel in a temperature- and light-controlled room. (Photo Credit: A. Siuda)

The experiments showed that copepods ate the contaminated plastic beads and apparently were not able to distinguish between an uncontaminated plastic bead and a highly contaminated bead. This was true of all three pollutants we tested.

The experiments also attempted to figure out the fraction of beads eaten by copepods when they were presented with a mixture of plastic beads (clean or contaminated) and algae, their staple food.  However, unexpected methodological challenges complicated the data. In order to quantify the number of plastic beads and algae that were consumed during an experiment, we used automated particle counting based upon particle size. We discovered that the tiny polyethylene beads had a tendency to clump together. These clumps, together with biological debris from the algal cultures, obscured the particle size information needed to determine the number of plastic beads and algal cells that had been eaten. This result, while disappointing, revealed a previously unknown phenomenon (plastic particle clumping) and will inform future experimental designs.

Although the fraction of ingested microbeads couldn’t be determined, the discovery that copepods ate both contaminated plastics and clean plastics is an important finding. It suggests these organisms either cannot sense these particular contaminants on their food, or cannot selectively avoid food particles contaminated with toxic chemicals. Without these avoidance mechanisms, there may be toxicological effects for copepods exposed to contaminated plastics in the ocean.

For more information on this project, check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website and the Marine Debris Clearinghouse.


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The United States of Trash: A Quantitative Analysis of Marine Debris on U.S. Beaches and Waterways

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: George H. Leonard, PhD, Guest Blogger and Chief Scientist for the Ocean Conservancy

Have you ever wondered how much trash is on U.S. beaches? So have we! At Ocean Conservancy, we have spearheaded the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) for over 30 years and have collected data on the materials that are cleaned up each year. However, we haven’t done a rigorous, quantitative analysis of those data to provide a baseline by which to understand changes over time and spatial differences in marine debris across the U.S. The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) has similarly monitored marine debris at a number of sites around the country, but also has not yet tried to rigorously evaluate what all the data mean. So, we have both teamed up with scientists Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia to bring the power of statistics to the problem. The answers are now just pouring in, and while we can’t reveal the specific findings until they are published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we can give you a sense of what is emerging from this effort.

Our joint project centered on 3 core questions: 1) How much marine debris occurs along U.S. shores?; 2) Are there specific items that are most (and least) abundant, and do they vary locally or regionally?; and 3) Are there “hotspots” where marine debris is most abundant? Our approach was to bring together the ICC and NOAA datasets and statistically explore the impact of state, region, proximity to cities, presence of rivers, and observer bias on the amount and type of debris collected. We were also interested in determining if patterns in some types of debris (like bottles and caps) were influenced by the presence of local policies, like container deposit legislation.

The analysis suggests that marine debris is highly variable around the United States, with some states quite ‘clean’ and others quite ‘dirty’, on a relative scale. While these patterns are highly variable, they are also heavily impacted by the presence of people, the location of routes to the sea (like rivers), and the presence of international borders. We are also discovering evidence that local policies, like container deposit laws, can reduce the presence of commonly-littered items (such as beverage containers) on local beaches.

The three monitoring protocols that were used in this study vary in the size of debris that is recorded. The Ocean Conservancy’s ICC methods have no detection limit (so include very small and large debris pieces), while NOAA’s monitoring efforts record items down to 2.5cm (one inch) in size. Thus, these two survey types are particularly adept at identifying larger items of littered trash. CSIRO’s approach to sampling debris quantifies all debris items that are visible to the naked eye (down to about 1mm in size), which can include many of the small plastic pieces that result from the disintegration of large debris due to exposure to the elements. Thus, when evaluated statistically, estimates of the number of plastic items on the beach can vary widely depending upon the survey method used. Of course, none of the sampling methods we evaluated are capable of sampling plastic pieces that are even too small to be seen by the naked eye. If you include these teeny plastic pieces – visible only under a microscope – estimates of how much debris litters our nation’s beaches and waterways grow larger still.

One take-home message from our study? The more scientists research the issue of debris in the ocean, the more we uncover the extent of the issue and the bigger the problem seems to become. Collaborative partnerships among NGOs, scientists, and government leaders like NOAA can help quantify the scale and scope of the problem – and in so doing, lay the foundation for the solutions needed to keep debris from entering the ocean in the first place.

For more on this project check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.