CANNON BEACH, Ore. -- It just might be the biggest environmental crisis that most people have never heard about: tiny, contaminated pieces of plastic are polluting the world’s beaches.
Small plastics along the tide line of an Oregon beach may look like bits of shell, but they are, in fact, a pervasive form of pollution that scientists have discovered on nearly every ocean beach on Earth.
A recent one-square-meter sample of sand taken from Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton yielded 10 pounds of plastics.
Tracy Sund picks up small bits of plastic debris along the shore for the City of Cannon Beach, but he can’t get to it all.
“These pieces have been at sea a long time,” he said holding a small plastic shard. “The pieces keep fracturing off, getting smaller and smaller. They [can also] get ingested by wildlife.”
The plastics don’t biodegrade. The smallest shards, known as microplastics, can mesh unseen into beach sand and stay unnoticed for years.
Most microplastics on Oregon beaches are believed to come from what called is called the North Pacific Gyre, a giant whirling garbage dump in the Pacific, now bigger than that state of Texas. It’s just one of five giant garbage fields swirling in the planet’s oceans.
Illustration below by Frangz, Creative Commons
Researcher Marc Ward first learned about microplastics a decade ago, while working to save sea turtles. Turtles often ingest the plastic and die.
“We had, at one point, a hundred sea turtles beached dead in Brazil,” Ward said.
Researchers have discovered that small plastics are being consumed by all sorts of marine creatures from plankton, which is a major food source for fish and marine mammals, to many types of seabirds.
What’s more, the plastics often contain concentrated toxins. A major study by Tokyo University tested plastic pieces from 140 beaches in 40 countries and found chemical toxins in every sample. Ward was a part of the study and believes plastics act like sponges, pulling in diluted toxins from the ocean.
In Oregon, once beachcombers learn what the colorful pieces actually are, they start noticing them everywhere.
“I don’t know what we can do about it,” said one Cannon Beach visitor. “But something needs to be done.”
[Video below is a campaign from the Natural Resources Defense Council]
The fight against microplastics is in the very early stages. Ward has developed static charged screens that can filter small plastics from the sand.
The screens are already used to sift out microplastics from sand on beaches from Hawaii to Mozambique.
“Everyone is getting on this screening because if you get out there with it you can do something,” Ward said. “You can actually clean your beach back to pristine.”
That sounds good to Sund. He hopes someday microplastics will be removed from the beach every day just like the big pieces.
“Everything matters,” said Sund. “Every move we make matters. It’s a lesson for all of us.”