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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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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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.


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.


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?


All Aboard The Rozalia Project!

By: Dianna Parker

On a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon in September, Hector the Collector swims to the bottom of Hampton River in Virginia and looks for trash. Visibility is terrible because of the sediment and plankton kicking up, but he knows it’s down there, as it was in every other harbor he’s searched. Giving up, he heads back to the dock, but awestruck kids will still crowd around him later to learn about his trash dives.

Hector the Collector is yellow, weighs about 15 pounds, and has a gripper claw, a camera, and headlights. He’s a remotely operated vehicle, made by VideoRay, that’s a centerpiece of the Rozalia Project’s marine debris education and outreach initiative, in partnership with the NOAA Marine Debris Program (NOAA MDP).

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“Rozalia Project is thrilled to be working with the NOAA MDP to combine resources to both cleanup and inspire people, of all ages, to be part of the solution to marine debris. We appreciate that NOAA’s Marine Debris Program shares our optimism that every efforts counts and that we all can make a difference!”

The Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean has been around for four years under the leadership of Rachael Miller, an enthusiastic educator, scientist, and sailor. Its mission is to find and remove marine debris, from the surface to the sea floor, through action, technology, outreach and research. Pick it up, don’t point at it, is the motto, and the Rozalia staff has gotten amazing results through those cleanups.

The Rozalia – NOAA MDP project, which kicked off in August, combines education with action. Rachael, with a group of dedicated staff, interns, and volunteers in tow, moves from town to town, setting up dockside programs that often attract dozens and often hundreds of people of all ages. In the summers, they work off American Promise, a 60’ vessel once used by Dodge Morgan for a world-record breaking, nonstop solo trip around the world.

Education is a cornerstone of Rozalia’s activities, and the staff goes to great lengths to engage their audience with STEM principles. Kids looking at a live feed from Hector’s camera go slack-jawed when they see the layers of plastic cups, beer cans, and other random trash on the bottom of their local waters. At the same time, they’re learning about data collection, math, and basic marine science. They make fun public service announcements. They weigh in on where the trash comes from, how long it takes to break down, and how they can be part of a solution. Hector even has sonar imaging that lets them “see” debris, even when the water is murky.

Rozalia staffers, who typically work in the Northeast, will go bi-coastal, taking the program to the West Coast this fall. They anticipate reaching about 10,000 people with dockside programs alone this year. Next spring and summer, they will get back on American Promise and resume education programs and science experiments on the East Coast, primarily in the Gulf of Maine.

For those who can’t make it out, Rozalia has a “Virtual Crew” program that allows members to read Mission Reports full of educational, quirky science, commentary, and challenges, help pilot the ROV through web chats, watch videos, and email with American Promise’s crew. Rachael wants 25,000 virtual crew members before the year is out.

Rozalia is a cleanup organization that works to offer science and education through those cleanups. If Hector isn’t collecting, then the staff is out with dip nets skimming the water’s surface. They also organize shoreline cleanups; eight volunteers for the latest effort in Frenchboro, Maine picked up 2,450 pieces in two days. The goal: to clean up 500,000 pieces of debris this year.

The NOAA MDP is excited to partner with Rozalia on this nationwide effort to educate people on marine debris and how their choices impact the marine environment. The intersection between science, education, and action is so important to the MDP and our work, and Rachael and her Rozalia team are already there. We hope to see you there, too!