Courtesy Mark RyanOver the past couple years, Science Buzz has posted several stories (here and here) about the humongous patches of garbage and plastic debris found floating in the world's oceans. It's a serious problem and one that should raise red flags for anyone concerned with the Earth's environment. But even more troubling is the recent news that plastic particles have now been found in all five of the Great Lakes lining the border of the USA and Canada. Unlike the large globs of plastic clogging areas of the ocean, the plastics polluting the Great Lakes are microscopic particles detectable only in a microscope. But they're no less disturbing.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Sherri “Sam” Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY-Fredonia has been gathering water samples and reported finding high concentrations of plastic particles in the chain of freshwater lakes. One of the researchers involved is environmental chemist Lorena Rios-Mendoza from University of Wisconsin-Superior. Both she and Mason have studied the Great Trash Island (aka Trashlantis) in the Pacific Ocean but has now turned their attention to the Great Lakes.
Most of the plastic found in the water is visible only under a microscope, but has been found in all five of the Great Lakes, both in the water column, and in lake sediment. The amount of micro-plastic varies between lakes with Lake Erie - the shallowest and smallest by water volume - containing the largest ratio and Lake Superior - the largest and most voluminous - a much smaller ratio. But it doesn't matter; the point is that we're polluting some of our important sources of fresh water with plastic.
It's thought that cosmetics with could one of the sources, since the industry relies heavily on using micro-beads in its products. These tiny plastic particles used on our faces, skin, and teeth, eventually get washed off into the water supply where they're too small to get filtered out. But cosmetics certainly aren't the only source.
Courtesy tedxgp2Think of the ungodly amount of plastic material we use and discard every year. Surprisingly, only about five percent of the bags, bottles, cups, electronics, etc. get recycled; most plastic trash ends up in landfills where it slowly degrades and eventually finds its way into the world's favorite garbage dump: the oceans.
“We have no idea how long some of these plastics stay in the ocean, could be more than 40 years,” Rios-Mendoza said. She also worries if organic toxins in the water can attach themselves to the tiny plastic particles, and end up in the food chain. In this regard, Rios-Mendoza has been sampling Great Lake fish to see if such toxic particles are present in their guts.
It's important to remember that only 3 percent of the world's water is freshwater and the five Great Lakes - Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie - together contain 20 percent of that freshwater. That's a large portion of a relatively scarce and essential life ingredient. Last fall, I posted an interesting graphic that illustrates nicely Earth's total water supply versus fresh water and puts things in perspective.
Courtesy Mark RyanRios-Mendoza and Mason have been collaborating with a research and education group called 5Gyres Institute that monitors and studies garbage patches found in five subtropical gyres in the world's oceans. Rio-Mendoza presented a preliminary study of their work on the Great Lakes at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. The team's future studies involve pinpointing the sources of plastic pollution and acquiring a better understanding of how plastics degrade in the environment.
"We all need to become aware of how much plastic we use in our lives and avoid using single-use products. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles or cosmetic products with micro beads. Bring re-usable bags to the store with you. Simple things like this make a big difference, but it’s also important to keep talking about this issue and raising awareness about how it affects the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” --- Dr. Sherri Mason“
By the way, here in Minnesota, and situated at the western tip of Lake Superior, the city of Duluth was recently proclaimed to have the best tasting drinking water in the state. By best-tasting, I'm assuming they mean it has no taste whatsoever since water is described as a colorless, tasteless liquid. Whatever the case, I always thought Duluth's drinking water was the best while growing up there (my grandparents lived in a Twin Cities' suburb and I never liked the taste of their softener-treated water).
In another water-related story, it's estimated that life on Earth can survive for at least another 1.75 billion years until we move out of the habitable zone and our oceans (and other water sources) will evaporate in the increased heat. So it's probably best that we take care of what water we have - it needs to sustain us for a long time.
My friend Rebecca has been rumored to throw a fine “But Does it Taste Good?” party, wherein she and others seek out cookbooks from days of yore (Velveeta Nutburgers anyone?)
Courtesy PeRshGo and test out seemingly horrific recipes that have no other possibility than somehow tasting good because they’re 1) tested and considered good enough to be printed in a book; and 2) the product of combined ingredients so repugnant that only a kitchen savant would ever consider putting such nasty, curdle-prone things together to get something so freakishly magnificent.
So when I read this article, Building a 'Nano-Brick' Wall Around Fresh Food, and envisioned several-weeks-old produce in the desert, I wondered: 1) But does it taste good? (the food; not the packaging), and 2) But does it biodegrade? (the packaging; not the food).
Now, let it be known to the universe: I hate plastic. I know, I know it’s been so helpful to our lives on so many levels – and yes, I do use it – but honestly, one viewing of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (you know, that that great trash mass twice the size of Texas floating out in the Pacific Ocean?), and it’s likely you, too, will clamor for any kind of plastic alternative whenever possible. So when I read about potential awesomeness like this new nano-clay-based packaging, I can’t help but get a little excited.
Courtesy Duncan Wright
And then my little shoulder-side Nano Skeptic poofs into existence and starts asking more questions. Questions that are beyond my ability to scientifically answer. You see, the creators tout this stuff as being a veritable fortress against the evils of oxygen - chastity belt inside a Safe Room inside a maximum-security prison, if you will. So if it’s that strong, that secure against oxygen, does that mean it’s less likely to biodegrade? Are we potentially replacing plastic with something even worse? Are we providing a much-needed, valuable service to those who are hungry (YAY!) to the long-term detriment of the planet (BOO!)? Does the benefit outweigh the risk?
And honestly, it’s questions like these that make me want to chuck it all and go live in a treehouse for the rest of my days.
Courtesy C-MOREWho hasn’t heard that plastic in the ocean is trouble?
Yep, plastic in the ocean is bad news; so let’s put scientific energy into studying and solving the problem.
Courtesy C-MOREIn 2008 C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, with assistance from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, embarked on an oceanographic expedition aboard the RV Kilo Moana, which means "oceanographer" in Hawaiian. The goal of the expedition, dubbed SUPER (Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response Cruise), was to measure the amount of micro-plastic in the ocean. In addition, oceanographers took samples to study microbes and seawater chemistry associated with the ocean plastic. The Kilo Moana sailed right through the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” between Hawai`i and California.
Early results: there was no garbage patch/island. Once in a while something like a barnacle-covered plastic buoy would float past the ship, but mostly the ocean looked really clean and empty of any kind of marine debris.
Courtesy C-MOREBut wait! Scientists looked closer and were amazed. Every single one of the more than a dozen manta trawls, filtering the surface seawater for an hour and a half each, brought up pieces of micro-plastic! Some were as small as 0.2 millimeter, mixed among zooplankton!
Other expeditions have reported similar results (for example, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2009 SEAPLEX expedition and Sea Education Association's North Atlantic Expedition 2010): no Texas-size garbage patches, but plenty of plastic marine debris to worry about. The data seem to show that most of the plastic is in the form of small pieces spread throughout upper levels of water at some locations around the world's ocean. In these areas, the ocean is like a dilute soup of plastic.
Courtesy C-MOREC-MORE researcher Dr. Angelicque (Angel) White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University (OSU) was a scientist on board the SUPER expedition. In recent interviews, (for example: the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Seadiscovery.com) Dr. White cautions us to view the complex plastic marine debris problem accurately. Furthermore, new results will soon be published by C-MORE about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces.
In the meantime, as Dr. White says, “…let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands. “
Plastic in the ocean is trouble. How can you be part of the solution?