Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Microplastics in the ocean

I crashed a brown bag seminar at work, a talk from a UW - Tacoma professor about her research on Puget Sound water samples and how much plastic is in it. Her research was going to help extrapolate how much plastic there is in the world's oceans. I'm not going to go into great detail of the results of the research done here but, no surprise, she found plastic in all her samples.

What did surprise me, however, was a few of the things she stated. The first was that she didn't believe there was a giant plastic patch in the Pacific. Her thinking was that, since it's hard to specify where the patch is and its size given its mobility due to currents and a whole host of other variables, it didn't exist. This would have made Beth Terry chafe.

The second statement she made was that there was no evidence that plastics, given their stability, were dangerous as far as leaching chemicals goes. She even jokingly offered up the idea that perhaps eating microbeads would be a good dieting method because it gave the feeling of satiety. She said that seabirds and fish could eat it and it would pass through their systems (if not too large, which is a problem) but it otherwise wouldn't affect them negatively from a chemical standpoint. This chapped my hide because there clearly is a lot of research showing that plastics leach all sorts of chemicals. BPA is an obvious example.

The last comment really burned my britches. When she asked us what we could do to prevent plastic in the oceans, the room was silent for a moment so I offered up the most obvious conclusion: "use less plastic". Her response was that they weren't about to take on the plastic industry. The answer, of course, is properly disposing of plastics but many people in the audience kept trying to bring up alternatives to plastics. The speaker stated that it's a "personal choice" but didn't have any suggestions or knowledge on how to avoid plastics.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this seminar, but I guess it was that the speaker would have a broader view of plastics, its affects and would be an activist for less plastics all-around. Instead, she focused directly on her more immediate research and less on the problem as a whole.

I'm not trying to criticize, it just occurred to me that, even scientists who spend their whole careers specializing in studying plastics in the ocean maybe aren't looking at the other issues involved.

What do you think? Do you think the problem of plastics in the ocean is just a disposal issue or are there other endemic problems with plastics?


Plastic-Free Beth Terry said...

Deanna, I have a lot to say about this, but I have to go to bed! Yes, chemicals have been found to leach from plastics in the ocean. No, it's not a big garbage patch but more like a plastic soup throughout the world's oceans. Yes, using less plastic is a good idea. No, recycling is not the final answer because so much of our "recycling" isn't actually recycled at all. I will dig up references for you after I've had some sleep.

Plastic-Free Beth Terry said...

Also? Everyone thinks they know what will make me chafe and many times they are wrong. One thing you can always bet money on is wearing a dress in the summertime. Major chaffage, which is why I never wear dresses. Have to figure out a good plastic-free alternative to Body Glide.

Kate said...

Sounds like her research is funded by the plastics industry. This woman has actual scientific credentials?

@Beth Terry, isn't good old cornstarch good for chafing?

Adrienne said...

Even if you throw out consideration of environmental & health effects, the other endemic problem with plastics is that whole "oil is a non-renewable resource" thing. Minor detail, I guess.

Grace said...

What do I think? I think your researcher is as full of shit as the ocean is full of plastic. I also think she is possibly owned by the Plastics Council. Interesting, though, that there are scientists out there giving lying lectures about how it's not that bad, really. MmmHmm. We've all heard this kind of baloney before.

The Haphazard Countryman said...

When you started the post, I thought to myself that I know where this is going, especially with a professor from a UW school. However, it took a total twist with the professor not seeing reality. I have seen pictures of the plastic island in the Pacific. Plastics are the good and bad in our society, all rolled into one.

Greenpa said...

Kate raises the question, and I also thought it was worth investigating- where did the research money come from? You bet it makes a difference, as do little details that are not at all easy to dig out, like, did this researcher's parent(s) work in the plastics industry? Very easy for a child to pick up a little bias- and be unaware of it.

Regardless, even, of the leaching question; any and all plastics in the ocean are not good for life. No matter what the particle size; at any size, there will be some organisms in the ocean for which that size will block various aspects of their organ/organelle function; from whole rubber ducky down to nano particles. Then- you have a class of organisms that are not functioning; and that affects the entire chain, up and down.

I lived around beaches for most of my childhood (father in Navy). In 3rd grade, we lived in Corpus Christi, Texas; on the Naval Air Station. Walking the beaches - there was always plenty of crud on the beach; but you could still walk 10 feet and not find anything not out of the ocean.

Then we moved to Hawaii; 1959. A beer can, or plastic bottle of some sort, on the high wave line was still a novelty.

My last visit to Hawaii, to spend New Years with my father, was a couple years ago. It was pretty distressing. The high wave line is now COMPOSED almost entirely of plastic bits. Millions, billions of them; absolutely everywhere, all the time. In the sand, everywhere. Making sand castles; every handful has hundreds of plastic bits.

:-( no, not good.

Meg said...

I live on an island and see plastic washing up all the time. The gulls get tangled in it. The other day I realized I was adding to the burden by getting 'free' plastic bags when I bought my veggies. Now I do without or bring my own net bags. It's so insidious! I went to a envelope stuffing party for a local sustainability group and the chairwoman offered us juiceboxes and little packs of crackers. Arrrrgh! My kids' lunches are cloth wrapped and recycled peanut butter jars for water. One small step for man...

seanote said...

Who is sponsoring her the plastics industry. I am standing that there are other things to package products and food in. Things are showing up. I started going plastic free about 1 1/2 ago. I am still phasing things out and especially food and liquids. I have food that has no nutritional value doesnt benefit the planet either. If we eat healthy then the planet will be healthier too. I love hearing how other people are doing this. Recycling just gives people an excuse to buy plastic and I dont think it all gets recycled.


Elizabeth B said...

Wow. My congratulations on keeping your cool and remaining civil. I would have had a hard time keeping my mouth shut!

It's not just a disposal problem. It's a creation-and-use problem. This seems like a problem seeing the forest for the trees, to me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, "follow the money" is all I got.

Is there any objective reason why using less disposable plastic (outside a say, lab or hospital setting) would be bad? I mean, what's the downside? Even if it didn't help the oceans, it certainly can't hurt them, right?

Brad K. said...


As long as cigarette filters will not count as hazards to wild and domestic animals, I doubt ocean plastic dumping will raise much fuss.

My thinking is that tobacco companies got caught lying about the dangers of smoke, of second hand smoke, of third hand smoke residue (residue deposited by cigarette smoke in vehicles, rooms, and on clothes that later causes bad effects). So now the 'conversation' is over. Those discarded cardboard and foil packages, the filter parts (containing residues of the cigarette as well as their chemical composition -- I don't see 'biodegradable' used to describe filters any time recently -- or non-toxic after use, either).

I am completely sold on the notion that recycling is dangerous to America and the world - it burns tax dollars and oil. Even the recycling that is shipped to Mexico 'cause they don't have our EPA banning the processing.

Recycling, by it's presence, gives permission to those making plastic stuff and those choosing plastics.

And yet, there is the plastic cereal box liner -- when was the last time you got a box of corn flakes with bugs going wild? Zip-loc bags - each, when new, is sanitary.

If not for plastic buckets - would that mean lots of metal buckets, with the cost in energy to mine, refine, manufacture, and transport the metal and metal products? I am thinking of the massive use of plastic 55 gallon barrels for oil products, for lead detector solution, etc. Paint buckets for the big jobs, in five gallon buckets.

Aluminum was once called 'solid electricity', from the practice of building a hydroelectric generator/dam near a bauxite (aluminum ore) mine, to smelt the aluminum on-site.

I remember years ago the angst over how much more energy a can with a pop-top took to make than a simple can that you used a can opener to puncture. It seems that conversation diet. But now, look at the number of two-liter soda and half-liter water bottles are churned out. Or disposable juice six-packs and eight-packs. With a market place seemingly addicted to plastic bottles - what is the alternative? The old 48 ounce juice cans can still be found, sometimes. How many people today have ever bought one?

When single-serving frozen meals (TV dinners for us old-timers) moved from the oven to the microwave, they moved from aluminum foil to plastic - with plastic film tops.

Is waxed paper still made with petroleum/plastic coating or paraffin, or still real wax? I doubt the wax part. And, again, how many homemakers have ever wrapped a lunch sandwich in waxed paper -- that was still 'sealed' when opened?

I am not disputing that reducing plastic use is essential. What I don't see is a path forward.

Using glass in the microwave works well. Also ceramic. But that pretty much eliminates the reduction of spoilage from single serving packaging. And also contradicts the single-serving lifestyle so many families seem addicted to (and the only heritage their children will realize).

It seems that in order to diminish relying on plastics, you have to first dismantle the current lifestyle of endless ambition, and the corporate-like rush to efficiency.

And stop recycling. It is 'false efficiency'.

@ Beth Terry,

I find the 'pure cornstarch' baby powder works pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Europe pays fishermen to catch trash


Anonymous said...

Crunchy Chicken said...

John - That's awesome.

April Alexander said...

Seriously? I think this person just came out of a time capsule...maybe she was lost in the space time continuum

NeuronMommy said...

Why is it that when I read about how safe plastic is, despite overwhelming evidence that it DOES leach chemicals (but, of course, these chemicals are safe as well), it reminds me of when cigarette companies denied that smoking cigs were harmful?

Lisa @ Granola Catholic said...

Seriously? I can't believe the presenter would say those things. Has she not seen the picture you have up with the article? Besides that point I can remember being a kids and my uncle who was a commercial fisherman told us stories about styrofoam coolers floating out at see and birds getting caught in six pack holders. This problem did not happen overnight and will not go away quickly. Never mind the fact that we plastic is made from petroleum and as such is a no renewable resource.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting. My first thought was, what would a geologist (oceanographer?) know about the biology aspect? She may know a lot about the plastic in Puget Sound, but less about the bioavailability of every chemical a seagull would eat. We would need someone who knew a lot about seagulls to know what happens to seagulls, this researcher may just know what happens to the water around Puget Sound. Maybe she was just asked a question/made a random statement outside of her field of expertise.

The same with the finding replacements for plastics--what would she know about renewable containers, she's probably not working in a materials lab. It makes sense that a geologist (if she is one) would focus more on how plastic gets from litter to ocean vs landfill to same landfill.

This is how science works: the geologists study geology, the biologists study biology, the materials scientists study material science. You can't have one super-person who can mentally/physically themselves actively study all three. What we can do is take every bit of research for what it's worth within its field, and try to integrate our knowledge into the bigger picture. Which is maybe what you were saying with the original blog post anyway.

Jasmin Loire said...

As a scientist, though not in her field, I would like to stand up for scientists and say that you were expecting things from her - the researcher - that she could not deliver. No wonder you feel let down.

Scientists are so specialized that we often joke that we know everything there is to know about nothing at all. Big picture? Not in science! This is why the world needs people in the humanities. Scientists don't - or shouldn't - make public policy. We don't turn our findings into technology (application); that is someone else's job.

She did the one thing she set out to do: extrapolate a number for the amount of plastic in the world's oceans. She's a one trick pony. Give her a different volume of water and she'll likely be able to give you a number for the amount of plastic in that.

Ask her a question about ANYTHING else, no matter how tangentially related, and you are dealing with someone less educated than yourself.

Crunchy, you are a well rounded and educated individual. Your strength is that you can see the big picture. You are complimentary to the researcher. Her strength is in researching one tiny little bitty question to death. You need hundreds of her to give you the collective body of knowledge that gives you the big picture. She needs you to point out that what she is doing is connected to something else.

This neither makes what she is doing good nor bad. Also, I highly doubt her research is funded by a plastics council. Whatever her personal remarks - and anything off the topic of a quantity of plastic is a personal remark - they aren't biased enough to have been swayed by lobbyist money. You wouldn't believe some of the conclusions we scientists /do/ hear that are actually biased by funding. If you think this is bad, just imagine something 10x worse.