Pennsylvania Sea Grant supports projects to prevent, and reduce the impacts of marine debris and microplastics in partnership with state and local agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academia. Our goal is to change public behavior through cleanups, research, outreach, and education.
Data shows that trash is making its way onto the land, into rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. Even thousands of miles from the nearest civilization, beaches are littered with discarded products – mostly plastic. Until Sherri Mason, a SUNY Fredonia chemistry professor, led the study of plastics pollution in Lake Erie in 2012, no one was documenting plastic in freshwater. Since then, she has found plastic in water samples taken from all the Great Lakes, with the highest concentrations found in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Whether in the ocean or the Great Lakes, the most worrisome marine debris cannot easily be seen. It includes microplastic resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products, microbeads added to personal care products, plastic fibers from clothing and the breakdown of plastic bags, bottles and other products. As these microplastics float in the water; they act like sponges accumulating manufactured poisons that are not water-soluble, such as DDT, PAH and PCBs. These pollutants are known to bioaccumulate and biomagnify up the food chain and find their way into the foods we eat.
Researchers are finding the plastics and seeing them increase at every trophic level up the food chain. Fish, seabirds, turtles, coral and other animals are mistaking all that plastic for food and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation.
Perhaps plastic pollution has reached this level because most people never see the accumulating amount of marine debris and the serious threat it poses. But studies by Mason, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Conservancy, the 5 Gyres Institute, the United Nations and others demonstrate that the impacts and quantity of marine debris are significant.
Marine debris and microplastics have increasingly negative effects on our economy, costing huge amounts in beach cleanups, tourism losses and damage to fishing and aquaculture industries. Eliminating its staggering costs to the environment, wildlife, navigation safety, human health and the economy will require every citizen to take action.