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Marine debris is a problem; you can help at cleanup events

By: Mandy Sartain / Published: Jun 21,  2018

Think back to the last time you went to a beach that wasn’t polluted with litter. Now, think back to the last time you went to the beach and you DID see it polluted with litter. In that moment, what did you feel?

When I was young, I remember the feelings I would get when I saw trash on the side of the road: anger, confusion and sadness. I could never understand how we could allow our trash to pollute the planet.

Plastics are a big problem

The ocean is becoming increasingly polluted every day by human debris. What I’m talking about is marine debris. Marine debris is becoming one of the most headlining global issues as nowhere is untouched by marine debris. The biggest contributor to this marine debris problem is plastic. Plastics are undeniably beneficial in their characteristics of being cheap, lightweight, durable and easy to make.

Single-use plastics make up a large amount of the waste we generate and this is due to the fact that they meet the end of their purpose in a matter of seconds. An example of short-lived, single-use plastics is plastic packaging as it is the worst of single-use plastics. Out of all the plastic that has ever been produced, only 9 percent of it has been recycled. Plastic that is not recycled ends up in landfills or in our environment because of poor waste management. Over time, with the influence of wave action and UV radiation, these plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces that we define as microplastics.

Microplastics are very problematic because not only can they be very toxic by having hazardous chemicals latch on to them, but they are also small enough to be ingested by animals. The effects of toxic microplastics on animals is an ongoing study.

What we need to know now is what kind of microplastics are out in the ocean, how much is out there and where they coming from. Mississippi State University is currently leading a project to get an idea of the distribution of microplastics in Northern Gulf of Mexico.

This project was funded through the Gulf of Mexico Alliances’ Gulf Star Program in 2017 and will continue until the end of 2018. MSU and partners, located throughout the Gulf – from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Key Largo, Florida, are currently gathering data to give us a snapshot of the microplastic abundance in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To see the data from this project, refer to this link for an interactive map. If you are interested in participating in this project, please check out the project website or email me.

So, what can we do today to prevent the marine debris problem from escalating? A good habit to put into practice is to refuse single-use plastic. You can do this by bringing your reusable coffee cup when you get your morning coffee or politely telling the waitress where you get your lunch at that you don’t need a straw.

Mississippi Coastal Cleanup set for Oct. 20

Other ways you can help are to get involved with local cleanup events. This year, the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Program is celebrating its 30th Anniversary! The 2018 Mississippi Coastal Cleanup will take place Saturday, October 20. Registration for this event is open on the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup webpage.

A volunteer picks up litter on a beach.
A volunteer picks up litter on a beach.

Beach Cleanup set by July 5

In addition to the annual event, the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Program is hosting their very first July 5th Beach Cleanup this summer. The celebration of Independence Day leaves our coastal environment littered with firework debris. Small remnants of fireworks are found spread across the beaches and can eventually end up in the ocean polluting and contaminating the water. These debris pieces can also be mistaken for food by the local wildlife threatening their health and wellbeing – including shorebirds. It is estimated that at least a third of all seabird species eat marine debris.

Registration for the July 5th Beach Cleanup event is also open on the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup webpage. For information, contact me at amanda.sartain@msstate.edu.

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