Sweat The Small Stuff – Ridding the Beach of Microplastic

By now you have probably heard about the problem of plastic in the ocean. Whether it’s the discovery of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, the horrifying video of a researcher pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose, or the ambitious efforts of teen Boyan Slat to come up with a large scale solution, ocean plastic has been in the news a lot over the last few years. And with good reason, a recent study estimated that a large bag of plastic ends up in the ocean each year for every meter of coastline on the entire planet. Another study estimated that as many as one third of all sea turtles ingest plastic, confusing it for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods.

One solution to this problem is beach clean ups, which have been going on for decades. While these efforts have successfully kept millions of pounds of trash out of the water, beaches afterwards are not completely clean of plastic debris. The problem is that plastic breaks down into small pieces and become vectors for bacteria, making them especially harmful to beachgoers and wildlife, in addition to the toxic chemicals that plastic is made from. Marine microplastic also has the ability to absorb deadly toxic chemicals from ambient sea water. Lab research at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology which Marc contributed to and co-authored found that all marine microplastics contain PCBs and a range of up to 200 other deadly toxic chemicals at over one million times background levels. 

One of our partners, Oregon-based Sea Turtles Forever (whose green turtle nesting beach project in Costa Rica is supported by Billion Baby Turtles), is one of the few organizations tackling this problem. One of the hardest working turtle conservationists around, Marc Ward, developed highly efficient screens for filtering out the small plastic bits that get left behind. The Blue Wave teams (Sea Turtles Forever’s Microplastic Recovery Team) tackle stretches of Oregon’s coast, removing hundreds of pounds of debris with each clean up.

I had an opportunity to join Marc and his team recently for an event at Cannon Beach for Earth Week. It was an unseasonably hot weekend day at one of Oregon’s busiest beaches, but that didn’t stop a group of volunteer high school students and local residents from braving the strong sun to help filter the beach. It takes about 5 minutes to shovel the debris onto the screen, pick it up and filter, and then dump the debris, covering about 5 feet of beach. Blue Wave focuses on the “Back Beach zone”, where waves collect plastic and other debris. The screens, what they call the “microplastic filtration system”, can remove plastic pieces as small as 100 micrometers (the size of a grain of sand).

Blue Wave volunteers filter sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Blue Wave volunteers filter sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Marc’s work has not only helped Oregon’s beautiful coast; he has sent copies of his filters to organizations around the world. The screens have been sent to 4 countries and they have worked with researchers at the University of Tokyo and Northwestern to study this problem. The work of the Blue Wave team is both helping bring to light the problem of microplastics and offering a simple solution. 

Learn more about the problem of plastic in the ocean: