By Taylor Lund
Laura Parker, a staff writer for National Geographic, published a story in 2015 titled “Ocean Trash: 5.25 trillion pieces and counting, but big questions remain”. In that story she discovered there were over 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris floating in the oceans. Of that 269,000 tons were floating on the surface and the amounts didn’t seem to be stopping.
Sitting down with Associate Professor in the Natural Sciences Department, Dr. Lorena Rios, she shared her knowledge and experiences working firsthand with the issue of microplastics. Microplastics, according to Dr. Rios, are any type of plastic substance that is up to .5cm or 5mm long. Most of these plastics float at or near the surface of the water imitating food to many of the aquatic animals. Oftentimes the pieces of plastic are mistaken for eggs and the other colorful pieces of plastics are mistaken for small fish which attracts many species of animals including sea birds.
To get a better idea of really how small these pieces can be, Dr. Rios said one of the biggest contributors of microplastics are the cosmetic products containing small “exfoliating” beads and believe it or not, toothpaste. The beads in a lot of face washes and the tiny beads in toothpastes don’t dissolve in water and when they reach the treatment plants they aren’t detected and are sent out into the bodies of water. These beads then float throughout the lakes or oceans and are picked up by various animals making them sick and often killing them.
Larger pieces of plastic are more of a problem in our oceans rather than the lakes. Dr. Rios described an area of the ocean between Long Beach, CA and Hawaii known as The North Pacific Gyre or North Pacific Garbage Patch. It is an area where the currents and tides have collected a mound of debris including giant buoy’s bigger than a grown man. Rios said that Tsunami’s will carry debris for many miles across the ocean which is why people often find particles from different countries on their beaches.
However, it’s the small microplastics that are the hardest to control. When Dr. Rios visited Lake Erie, she found that it was far worse in comparison to Lake Superior. She stated that the amount of people living near the lake is a large supporter to the amount of microplastics found. With that, Lake Erie is also much shallower and smaller in size compared to Lake Superior. However, Lake Superior still contributes to the ever-growing problem of plastics harming wildlife.
When collecting and sampling the water, scientists use a device called a manta trawl. The manta trawl is named such, because it resembles a manta ray. It usually has metal wings and mouth that sucks in the water and filters it collecting the plastic pieces. There are also nets attached made of thin mesh which also helps in collecting the debris.
Dr. Rios declared that the only way to fully stop the issue would be to stop using plastics altogether. Finding an alternative source to make products is essential in combating the issue. Seeing plastics differently is also important in fixing the current state of our waters. There is a problem known as “single use plastic”. It is when you get, for example, a plastic bag from Subway when in reality you really don’t even need that piece of plastic in the first place. Avoiding using it is a part of Dr. Rios’s new saying. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse. If you can, refuse to use plastic at all costs. It’s important to not only the animals, but to humans as well.