January 20, 2015
The plasticized ocean threatens marine environment
By PAT GARBER
Coastal Review Online
along the shoreline of Ocracoke Island a few weeks ago, I saw what
looked like an armor-clad knight waving from a hummock of spartina
grass. I stopped and stared in shock, then bewilderment.
looked through my binoculars and realized I was looking at a group of
silvery helium balloons, tied together, caught in the branches of a
small dead cedar tree and swaying in the sea breeze. These balloons,
which would probably find their way into Pamlico Sound, were part of a
huge and ever-increasing problem threatening North Carolina’s marine
environment -- plastic pollution.
When balloons fall into the
water they resemble jellyfish, which are a favorite food of sea
turtles. When they mistakenly eat them, the sea turtles die. Plastic
bags and bottles can be equally deadly to marine life.
coast of North Carolina lies what is known as the North Atlantic Gyre.
It’s a large system of rotating ocean currents, often driven by strong
winds, that’s centered near Bermuda. It includes the Sargasso Sea and
the Gulf Stream. Within its center, drawn in by the currents, lies what
Lisa Rider, coordinator of the N.C. Marine Debris Symposium, describes
as a plastic soup. This floating mass of plastic is not the only area
of North Carolina waters that is awash with plastic pollution, however.
The waters in our sounds and rivers are also filled with plastic
debris, she said.
According to Rider, who is also assistant
director of the Onslow County Solid Waste and Landfill Department,
plastics are becoming more and more of a problem. Not only bags and
bottles, but plastic straws, spoons and fast-food containers add to the
deadly mix. Cigarette butts, which contain plastic in their filters,
are the majority of the plastic litter, Rider notes. She says that
there are no naturally occurring organisms that break down the polymers
in plastic, so they never biodegrade. The sun may break them down into
tiny pieces called micro-plastics, which makes them even more dangerous
because they are then more easily consumed by marine organisms.
ecological effects of plastic pollution is not the only concern. There
are also economic consequences as well. Plastic-littered beaches are
not good tourist draws, and boat engines can be fouled by plastic. The
commercial fishing industry is affected when consumed plastics move up
the food chain to edible fish, reducing the catch. One of the goals of
the symposium is to develop an award for businesses that reduce their
plastic production and use.
While industrial and agricultural
plastics pose problems, the main focus is on what are called
“single-use plastics,” particularly plastic drink bottles and plastic
bags. According to Ethan Crouch, chairman of the Carolina Beach Plastic
Bag Committee, plastic bags have a 20-minute lifespan for consumer use.
They are the cause of death, however, for about 100,000 marine mammals
each year. The goal of the committee is to educate the community about
the problems these bags cause, Crouch said Scott Mown, who is with the
Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Services in the N.C.
Department of Environment and Natural Resources, oversees the state
recycling program. Its main focus, he says, is on plastic bottles. The
concern is making sure that plastic bottles and other recyclables are
collected and distributed to the recycling centers. Otherwise they end
up in the ocean or in land fills. There is a statewide ban on
depositing plastic bottles in landfills, but he says that it is very
difficult to enforce.
The program encourages community
recycling, including curbside collection and, in beach communities,
collection bins at beach access roads. They have worked with such
seaside communities as Sunset Beach and Indian Beach, but want to
expand to other beach towns.
Out of 550 municipalities in the
state, 315 now have curbside recycling. Others have drop-off centers
where people can deposit their plastics and other recyclables.
added that, while recycling is the main focus, the state also encourage
source reduction, which means producing fewer plastics. Among their
recommendations is replacing plastic bags with re-usable shopping bags
and plastic bottles with refillable water bottles.
Carolina department concerned with plastic pollution is the Division of
Coastal Management. Paula Gillikin, a manager at the division’s Coastal
Research and National Estuarine Research Reserve, conducts most of her
work at the Rachael Carson Preserve, near Beaufort. She focuses on
plastics on the shoreline, though they do some underwater cleanup. Most
of the plastics, she believes, float to the reserve from other places
-- washed up from upstream businesses, waterfront homes and blown out
of people’s boats. Along with bottles and bags, she notes, much comes
from the restaurants, including Styrofoam food containers and plastic
Gilikin’s group conducts several cleanups a year,
trying to use ecosystem-friendly bags and containers, such as bags made
from cornstarch instead of plastic. They try to incorporate education
into their cleanups and tours. In every cleanup, she noted, they find
at least one balloon. A few years ago she and her co-workers conducted
a social science survey, to see what users of the Rachael Carson
Preserve thought were the most common debris. Bottles and bags came in
first. Caps and lids are also common, as well as small pieces of
Bonnie Monteleone, a marine
scientist with the Plastic Ocean Project at the University of North
Carolina Wilmington, says that plastics constitute approximately 90
percent of the trash floating in the ocean. Plastic in marine waters,
she explains, act like sponges, absorbing PCBs, DDT and other “nasty
chemicals,” many of which are now illegal but still remain in the
environment as part of the plastics. Small fish that consume these
plastics are eaten by larger fish, which may in turn be eaten by
humans. We may inadvertently be consuming toxins which have been
prohibited for decades, Monteleone noted.
Her art exhibit made entirely from plastic pulled from the sea can now be seen at UNC Chapel Hill.
newly released study, conducted by the Natural History Museum at the
University of Plymouth in England, found that there was more plastic
pollution than previously suspected. According to zoologist Lucy
Woodal, “Plastic waste is breaking down into fibers, invisible to the
naked eye, and sinking to the sea floor. The number of fibers near the
ocean bottom is up to four times greater than in shallow or coastal
More than half of these fibers, she noted, are rayon,
with polyester, polyamides, acetate and acrylic making up most of the
rest. Scientists estimate that there are a total of 269,000 tons of
plastics in the world’s oceans.
Thinking about the disturbing
statistics, I paddled my kayak to the shore. I pulled it on the sand
and trudged through the grass and debris to the balloon-ensconced tree.
Along the way I also picked up a plastic water bottle and a broken
Styrofoam container, both cushioned in the grasses. I pulled the
balloons down and stashed them in the bow of the kayak before
continuing on. It wasn’t much, but at least I had taken a small step in
reducing the pollution, and maybe saving an animal’s life.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)