While you may envision plastic water bottles and bags floating in an ocean, even the stuff you can’t see could be killing marine life—and scientists are working to understand the health implications of microplastics on people, animals and Earth.
That was the message scientists shared during the panel discussion “Plastic: Land to Sea Connections.” Whether it comes as microscopic fibers emitted by your washer and dryer, or as larger items of trash, plastic hitches a ride, traveling through storm systems, streams, rivers and ultimately into estuaries and oceans, the panelists said.
“We, as a species, have an addiction to plastic,” said Branson W. Ritchie, a Distinguished Research Professor and director of technology development and implementation in the UGA New Materials Institute. “That plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it just breaks down. It doesn’t stop until it gets to some irreducible size, but we don’t know yet what that size is. As it gets smaller, it gets more and more dangerous to animals. A plastic water bottle, plate or fork breaks down to hundreds of millions of even smaller pieces and will kill some animal that eats it, but the plastic is still there to be eaten and kill again.”
Plastic may take decades or hundreds of years to degrade, but it persists as fragmented pieces that can become airborne and escape water filtration systems, the panelists said.
“Oceans are the ultimate transporter of plastic,” said Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering who has focused on plastics since about 2001.
But greater awareness about the problem and a collective goal to be less reliant on plastic are key catalysts for global change, noted the panelists.
Panelist Katy Smith, the water quality program coordinator with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, teaches school children, college students and adults about the hazards of things they may view as benign—like balloons, straws and cigarette butts.
“Marine debris is everyone’s problem,” Smith said. “We can all take part in the solutions.”