NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

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Wastewater Treatment Plants and Marine Debris

By: Matthew Coomer, Intern with the NOAA Marine Debris Program

You may not think about wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) very often, but you use them every day. In fact, they are essential to protecting our health and the environment; WWTPs change our sewage into clean water that can safely re-enter rivers and the ocean. These facilities are complex, but to simplify, they filter solid material out of wastewater, allow microorganisms to feed on the organic matter that’s left behind, and then kill any dangerous bacteria. Whenever you use water at home or in your community, you use your local WWTP. Unfortunately, while these treatment plants are very good at their job, they may also be point sources of a persistent type of marine debris— microplastics.

When most WWTPs were designed, most people weren’t thinking about potential environmental impacts from plastic or how popular it would become. In many ways, treatment plants still handle plastic debris really well. When large pieces of plastic (like food wrappers) enter the system, they are separated for proper disposal like other solids. Studies show that modern plants capture over 99% of microplastics, too. Sadly, even that remaining 1% is a big problem. WWTPs work through millions of liters of wastewater every day, so a few plastic particles per liter can add up to billions released over time. Unfortunately, creating new filters and upgrading old systems to capture all these particles can be very complicated. Instead, we can all work to prevent plastics from going to WWTPs in the first place.

Plastic microbeads are added to many personal care items like soaps, toothpastes, and body washes. These beads act as an exfoliant and are designed to wash down the drain. “Out of sight, out of mind” only flows as far as the treatment plant, though. Several studies have found that most microplastics entering WWTPs are from consumer products, so reducing our use at home matters. Thankfully, Congress gave us a hand when it passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which will stop the production of microbead-containing rinse-off cosmetics this July and ban their sale next year. Until then, look to see if that scrubbing product in your bathroom contains plastic microbeads and, if so, use a different one next time. When everyone makes this small change, it could have a huge, positive impact. Your WWTP will appreciate the help in keeping our waters clean, healthy, and debris free.

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Detecting Microplastics in the Marine Environment

By: Amy Uhrin, Chief Scientist with the NOAA Marine Debris Program

Microplastics are a type of plastic marine debris that are less than five millimeters in size. Research on this type of debris has become more widespread, but since there is no single agreed-upon method for separating, counting, and weighing microplastics in water samples, it is difficult to compare results across studies. Common approaches may be used, but most laboratories develop their own procedures based on factors such as budget, equipment availability, labor, and the specific research questions being asked.

Since so many different protocols are being used, the NOAA Marine Debris Program partnered with researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma to compare different methodologies.  Six labs from around the globe were chosen for this comparison, each having experience in processing water samples for the purpose of counting microplastic particles. Reference samples were created by first filtering water collected from the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma, Washington, and then adding a known number and weight of microplastic pieces to 200mL of the filtered water. The types of plastic pieces added to the sample included fragments from drinking straws, netting, sandwich bags, and other common plastic items. These reference samples were shipped in glass jars to participating laboratories for analysis. The labs were asked to use their own methods to process the sample and report the number of particles counted and the total weight of the particles.

The overall accuracy of the protocol comparison was high. Microplastic weights measured by the participating labs differed by only 1.6% on average from the reference sample. There was also high agreement in the particle counts made by each lab versus the reference samples. Projects such as this that evaluate the comparability among labs are a first step toward the development of standardized microplastic sampling methods for the collection of reliable and comparable data. To our knowledge, this is the first interlaboratory comparison for microplastic sampling methods.

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The President Signs a National Microbead Ban

Toothpaste with microbeads in it.

Microbeads can be found in health and beauty products like toothpaste. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

On Monday, December 28th, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 into law. This new law bans plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products, requiring companies to stop manufacturing products that contain them. Microbeads are tiny plastic beads that have commonly been added as abrasives to health and beauty products such as exfoliating face washes and toothpastes, and are designed to wash down the drain. Congress’ swift passage of this legislation is reflective of a growing movement to ban microbeads at the state level– in 2015 alone, 47 bills to ban microbeads were introduced in 25 state legislatures and nine were signed into law.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act will help stop the introduction of plastic microbeads into our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes. Beginning in July 2017, this law will phase out the manufacture of microbeads and by July 2019, it will completely halt distribution of all cosmetic and personal care products containing microbeads. This will eliminate the daily release of an estimated 8 trillion plastic microbeads into our nation’s waters.

This ban works to address the numerous issues caused by plastic microbeads in marine environments. For instance, research has shown that plastics persist for decades in aquatic and marine habitats, breaking down into ever-smaller pieces. Plastics have also been shown to absorb toxic chemicals from their surrounding environment and additional research has shown that these toxic plastics are regularly consumed by marine life. Initial research has found that ingested plastics may then transfer these toxic chemicals to marine life, subsequently moving up the food chain.

Removing microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products is a positive step toward combating marine debris in our waters. However, we must keep in mind that there are more than eight million metric tons of plastic introduced into the ocean each year, with microbeads only acting as one of many sources. There is still a lot of work to be done and we can all help! You can help address the plastic problem by taking the following steps to reduce single-use and disposable plastics entering the ocean and Great Lakes:

  • Tap it! Drink tap water from a reusable container
  • Reuse it! Take along your reusable coffee mug, food containers, silverware, and shopping bags
  • Refuse it! Buy fewer plastic items, avoid products with plastic microbeads, and opt for products that minimize plastic packaging
  • Recycle it! Recycle the plastics you do use
  • Can it! Use a trash can with a lid so your plastics and other waste do not accidentally end up in our waterways
  • Remove it! Join beach cleanups to help pick up trash in our waterways and on our coasts

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Microplastics Found in Chesapeake Bay Surface Water Samples

By: Leah Henry

In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Oxford Labthe NOAA Marine Debris Program collected surface water samples from four tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, using the techniques described in the document, “Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment: Recommendations for Monitoring Debris Trends in the Marine Environment,” and found microplastics in 59 of 60 samples.

Though the impacts of these tiny plastic particles (smaller than 5.0 mm in size) on wildlife and the environment is unknown, many ongoing studies are hoping to soon answer those important questions.

University of Maryland Professor Dr. Lance Yonkos was not surprised by what they found in the bay. As the lead author of this study, Yonkos’ take home message is one of prevention, “If we want to reduce microplastics in the oceans we need to limit their release at the source.” Find out more from the Photo Essay: Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay.

All Photos by Will Parson, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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New Laboratory Methods: How to Analyze Microplastics in the Marine Environment

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program Staff

noaa_microplastics_methods_manual (1)Plastics are often the main type of debris found in oceans, rivers, lakes as well as on surrounding riverbanks and shorelines and those plastics however big or small can enter the environment from a multitude of sources. These plastics can eventually degrade into smaller and smaller pieces and with that in mind the NOAA Marine Debris Program releases the Laboratory Methods for the Analysis of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Recommendations for quantifying synthetic particles in waters and sediments.

This methods manual outlines step-by-step instructions on how to quantify microplastics in marine environmental samples, and how to streamline terminology and approaches. Depending on each study’s aim and the environmental collection techniques, these methods can be used to calculate concentrations of microplastics.

Please follow this link to download a copy of the Microplastics Methods Manual:


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Great Lakes Educators Workshop: Teaching Teachers about Marine Debris

By: Sarah Lowe and Leah Henry

Last week, the NOAA Marine Debris Program co-hosted the Great Lakes Marine Debris Educators Workshop with Ohio Sea Grant.

Educators from across the Great Lakes, and from all grade levels, experienced marine debris research first hand.  Participants trawled Lake Erie for plastics, conducted a marine debris cleanup, dissected fish, and participated in marine debris specific lessons and activities. Educators were given the opportunity to analyze the trawl samples, fish gill and stomach contents, as well as personal care products that contained microbeads under microscopes to see and experience the debris that impacts our local Great Lakes habitats and species.

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By pairing science-based education with other lessons and activities focused on local action and prevention of marine debris, participants can share the information they learned with their peers and engage students in the global importance of marine debris.

The workshop was held at The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory in Lake Erie.  Established in 1895, Stone Laboratory is the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States and the center of Ohio State University’s teaching and research on Lake Erie. The lab serves as a base for more than 65 researchers from 12 agencies and academic institutions, all working year-round to solve the most pressing problems facing the Great Lakes, including marine debris.

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The International Coastal Cleanup Turns the Tide on Trash

By: Asma Mahdi

What does fishing line, a miniature plastic toy dog, and a single use water bottle have in common? They’re all marine debris found at this year’s International Coastal Cleanup.

Volunteers across the country from the Eastern shores of the U.S. to the Hawaiian islands participated in the largest single-day, volunteer effort to help protect our oceans from trash. In California alone, volunteers prevented nearly 680,000 pounds of trash from entering our oceans – stopping it in its tracks.

Thank you to all volunteers who came out on Saturday to clean up our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Here’s a look at what NOAA volunteers across the nation found during the cleanup event:

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