Prevalent Plastics

On April 26th I was able to attend Sanctuary Currents 2014, a symposium that took place at California State University, Monterey Bay. The symposium for this year was titled “Marine Debris: How Do You Pitch In?” There were several speakers discussing different aspects of marine debris and they were all very insightful.

The first presentation was by Susan von Thun from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and she spoke about trash in the deep sea. She explained that most of the information about debris in the deep sea is acquired through the use of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. I learned that canyons in the ocean often help to transport debris into the deep sea. The composition of trash in the deep sea is mostly made up of plastics, followed by metals and rope. Von Thun explained that most of the marine debris found in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary were single-use recyclable items. I also learned that removing debris from the deep ocean might be too expensive and impractical at this point, so that it would just be better to reduce our use of single-use non-recyclable items.

The second presentation was by Dr. Chelsea Rochman and she spoke about some of the dangers that chemicals in plastics pose to food webs. She explained that plastics are in a way “cocktails” of chemicals because they easily absorb chemicals. Since plastic debris has been found to be digested by at least 40 different species of fish, it seemed imperative to investigate whether this consumption had any adverse health effects on fish. One of the specific studies discussed by Dr. Rochman showed results that marine debris consumption in fish did indeed have ill health effects, causing hepatic stress- including severe glycogen depletion, lipidosis, and single-cell necrosis. Dr. Rochman mentioned that it is important to study fish because they are a main staple for some people’s diets, so understanding the biomagnification effects of the chemicals in food chains is important. While this presentation was heavy on chemistry, the information was still accessible and easy to understand.

The next presentation was by Carolyn Box, an environmental coordinator with 5 Gyres Institute. She spoke about the distribution of marine plastic pollution on surface waters. She explained that the 5 Gyres Institute has collected various water samples during 12 expeditions in the 5 subtropical gyres and the Great Lakes. I learned that most marine debris comes from on-land and that a lot of marine debris is in microfragments, meaning small plastics. Carolyn Box also talked about microbeads which are often found in cleansers for personal care and talked about how they are a problem since they are designed to go down the drain.

The next speaker was the very enthusiastic Daniella Russo with the “Think Beyond Plastics” Campaign. I think her presentation was very effective because it was very passionate. It was especially effective because she alluded to some of the unfortunate things that have happened because of marine debris, like dead albatrosses. She talked about the history of plastics and how they flourished around World War 2. I guess as someone that was born in 1991 plastic has always been ubiquitous, so it was interesting to hear of a time before plastic was prevalent.

The last speaker was Eben Schwartz with Coastal Clean-Up. He mostly spoke about California Coastal Clean-Up day and how it’s a huge event that happens throughout California. He talked about how they are integrating data collection into Coastal Clean-Up day to be able to better assess what type of trash they encounter along the coast. He mentioned that cigarette butts are one of the most prevalent pieces of trash.

During a break I was able to take a look at the posters that were being displayed. There were posters from CSUMB students are well as from local high school students. There was a big range on the information of the posters. A lot of them were very informative with a lot of text, while others had much less text. It was really nice to see that a lot of the students had completed their research at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve; it just reminds me that I’m lucky enough to have my survey sites at such an environmental hotspot. Seeing all the posters made me want to conduct to conduct my own experiment and make my own poster!

The information presented at this symposium was a reminder that we all need to do our part to combat the plastics that have become so ubiquitous. If we were once able to live without plastic then that can surely be achieved again. Thinking about plastics and other debris piling up at the bottom of the ocean is a scary thought. If we don’t take action now, who knows how much trash could accumulate on the earth. As time goes on we keep producing several things and disposing of them. Eventually there might be a bigger mass of trash than of living humans on this planet.

For my part, I will make sure that I don’t buy any products with microbeads. Furthermore, I will try to be more conscious of buying things with less plastic packaging. I will also try to spread this knowledge with other people, but I often find it hard to casually talk to someone about the importance of reusing, reducing, and recycling without sounding condescending. We all need to pitch in for this cause in order to keep the earth, which is home to all of us, healthy.

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2 thoughts on “Prevalent Plastics

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing what you experienced and learned at the conference! I felt like I went with you. 🙂 Great pictures too!

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