Like most of us, I never really gave much thought to microplastics pollution on our pristine beaches of Del Norte County, until my nephew, and surfer, sent me a video he shot at South Beach at the high tide marks last February. There were thousands of small pieces of colored plastics on the sand, coming from where I had no idea.
When our friends and family do beach cleanups, we barely notice them; concentrating on the larger pieces of plastics like bottles, plastic bags and trash. I felt compelled to do some research on the subject and educate myself and others on the problems we face here in our county.
I would like to thank the thousands of scientists, researchers and volunteers around the world, and especially the Surfrider Foundation, which contributed to this article.
Microplastics, are small, broken-down pieces of non-biodegradable plastic polymers that are washing ashore on California beaches at an alarming rate. Random sampling done at Pebble Beach in Crescent City, have measured more than 48 pieces of non-water soluble plastics per square meter. This beach is precariously close to the Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge and poses disastrous consequences to the health of the local sea lion populations, invertebrates and fish species.
Other area beaches: Enderts, South Beach, Front Beach and Kellogg Beach are no exception, as they too contain huge amounts of plastic contaminants at the high tide marks.
The current situation at the pristine beaches of Del Norte County is a microcosm of the exponentially worsening situation facing Central and Southern California coastlines. A recent clean up at Huntington Beach, done by the Surfrider Foundation and its hundreds of volunteers in Orange County, recovered over 1,800 pounds of plastics; everything from hypodermic needles to plastic straws.
Tony Soriano, chairman of the Huntington Beach Chapter of the California Foundation, is well aware of the endless problem of microplastic pollution:
“We have barely skimmed the surface. It’s frustrating that we can’t stop the dumping at the sources, such as the Santa Ana River spit, where unfiltered garbage spews into the ocean by the tons. Until we can address the issue with the local wastewater treatment plants along the coastline, the river of plastics into the ocean will continue unabated. We see a ton plastics floating on the surface when we go surfing so I can only imagine what lies beneath.”
It is estimated 80 percent of microplastics enter marine ecosystems from the run-off from the over 200 water treatment plants in California. The remaining 20 percent wash ashore through tidal mechanisms from the Pacific Ocean Gyre — a floating swath of plastic contaminants twice the size of Texas — located halfway between Hawaii and California, and estimated to weigh more than 70 million tons and extend 9 feet deep.
The Great Garbage Patch was first discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, a scientist, surfer and sea captain, while sailing in the North Pacific Ocean, and is expected to double in size in the next 10 years. In his book “Plastic Ocean,” he outlines the devastation facing the environment from plastic pollution. It is a must read for those wanting more information on the plastic age.
Manufactured plastics around the world such as water bottle caps, bags, buckets, spray bottles, plastic utensils, straws, fishing line, household plastics, food containers and medical waste are some of the main culprits for ocean pollution. At sea, oil platforms, fishing fleets and sea going vessels routinely throw overboard other plastic products such as toothbrushes cosmetics and razor blades that eventually break down into non-biodegradable microplastics.
These small particles can enter the digestive tracts of marine mammals, mollusks and fish throughout their life cycles, often mistaken for food. The effect on the ocean environment is shocking.
More than 1,200 species have been impacted including whales, sharks, birds, fish, dolphins and sea turtles, many of which are poisoned or trapped by plastic waste. It has been estimated that over 25 percent of the fish sold for human consumption in California contain microplastics in their guts. Non-biodegradable plastics may take between 400-1000 years to decompose, thus posing a huge impact on the food chain in marine environments.
Other research on microplastics pollution paints a dire prediction for the future.
Clemson University, collaborating with the National Park Service, collected and analyzed sand samples from 37 coastal parks in the U.S. Funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, microplastic debris was found in even the most remote areas, including Alaska and the Pacific islands.
Sadly, a new garbage patch has been found in the South Pacific Ocean by marine pollution researcher Marcus Erikson, just as large or larger per square kilometer, bringing the total to five gyres around the globe. Solving the problem by using huge trawls to scoop up the toxic debris is futile.
“Gone are the silly notions that you can put nets in the ocean and solve the problem.” said Erikson. The cloud of microplastics extends both vertically and horizontally. It’s more like smog than a patch.”
Enter Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-owned startup organization founded in 2013 with over 31 million dollars in donations from around the world. His aggressive approach entails the employment of ocean-going trawlers equipped with nets 1-2 kilometers long, capable of extending over 3 meters in depth, to extract plastic waste and load it into cargo containers to be eventually recycled.
The scheduled deployment will be in early 2018, assuming all the logistics are in place. The equipped vessel is currently docked in San Francisco, which will be the initial focal point for the recycling aspect of the process. The goal of the project is to remove half of the estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic contaminants from Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, in 5 years, using the ocean currents to do the work.
Sadly, the elaborate system design will not capture any microplastics, but it can prevent larger plastic pieces from degrading into 5-10 millimeter sizes. It will be an uphill battle, but this method of extraction is cutting edge.
Fortunately though, new research has come to light that indicates there may be man-made solutions to bio-degrade plastics. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, Kunming Institute of Botany, have found a fungi that breaks down plastic in a manner of weeks. Aspergillus tubingensis, commonly found in soil, secretes enzymes that biodegrade plastics in a manner of weeks, possibly put to work in wastewater treatment plants. Although not tested worldwide, there is some promise that this methodology can be applied as an adjunct to plastic contamination reduction. Exponentially, we’re going to need a lot of fungi.
And in April of this year, scientist and researcher John McGeehan with the University of Portsmouth in England, accidentally identified an enzyme producing bacteria found in a waste dump in Japan that can break down the plastics used in drink bottles (PET) in a manner of days, not centuries. Using a sprayed on application, the discovery could have a significant impact on the mounting global plastics problem in our oceans. Again, the enormity of the endeavor is daunting.
A new California Assembly Bill (2779) was introduced on April 8 by Democrat Assemblyman Mark Stone, 20th Assembly District, representing the North Central Coast, which if passed, will require single-use plastic bottle manufacturers to tether the cap to the bottle. The Bill has stalled out on the Assembly floor but has been passed by the Natural Resources Committee where it awaits further action.
Bottle caps make up a third of the trash found collected on California Beaches. It is estimated that as much as 5 million bottle caps impact the environment every year, posing extreme dangers to sea birds and mammal life where they have shown up in the stomachs of these creatures.
The “Connect the Cap” bill is strongly opposed by the International Bottled Water Association, saying it would have a negative impact on large and small businesses. In response to the measure, Crystal Geyser Water is leading the way by changing their bottle caps to be tethered. Other plastic bottle companies like Nestle are indicating they will comply with the bill if passed. Hopefully, the rest of the huge plastic bottle manufacturers will follow suit; however there is no impetus to do so without legal or legislative action.
It is time we sounded the alarm on the prevalence of microplastics polluting our pristine beaches in Del Norte County and beyond. Contact our local government officials and make your voice heard. Plastics pollution has got to stop.
Until non- biodegradable plastic extraction comes to fruition, it may be too late to counter the amount of these contaminants already washed ashore. With human intervention, we can do our part by picking up plastics and microplastics trash we find on our coastal environments and beaches.
Using alternatives to plastics when we can and pressuring manufacturers to change to biodegradable product is paramount. If asked for paper or plastic at the store, choose paper or bring your own reusable bags.
But what are the alternatives to plastics in the other products we consume? Huge plastic manufacturers around the world such as Dow Chemical, Lyondellbasell and Exxon Mobile, with more than $17.8 billion in sales, are under pressure to eliminate as much non-recyclable plastic as possible from their products. Little has changed in the last 50 years, as evidenced by the five gyres of plastics pollution in the world’s oceans that are floating environmental disasters.
We are inundated by plastics pollution in every form and collectively, we must come up with permanent solutions or face catastrophic damage to our marine ecosystems that is irreparable.
Randy Zopf lives in Del Norte County.