What lurks be­neath the waves

The Compass - - OPINION -

Weath­ered shot­gun shells in green and red — 12 gauge, mostly. Old rope and frayed net­ting. A brand-new wine bot­tle, Jack­sonTriggs Sau­vi­gnon Blanc, la­bel shelfnew and crisp, cap twisted back firmly in place. A salt meat bucket lid, a plas­tic tam­pon ap­pli­ca­tor, shards of vinyl sid­ing, plas­tic car parts. And plas­tic bot­tles. Lots of plas­tic bot­tles.

It’s just a scat­ter­ing of what’s on the beach in Mo­bile, about 40 kilo­me­tres south of St. John’s. It’s a beach of round stones, weath­ered, with a cold wind off the ocean and the high touch of woodsmoke, some­one burn­ing spruce in a wood­stove.

But what’s on the beach is only a frag­ment of what’s in the ocean — in fact, the frag­ments that are in the ocean, what you can’t see, may be even more alarm­ing.

And part of the prob­lem may be some­thing that plenty of peo­ple thought was a so­lu­tion.

There’s all kinds of near-mi­cro­scopic plas­tic in the ocean. Its salin­ity and wave ac­tion, along with ul­tra­vi­o­let degra­da­tion, can re­duce wa­ter bot­tles and plas­tic bags to plas­tic fi­bres in mere months. The bits then travel ev­ery­where the wa­ter goes.

There’s sci­ence be­ing done on the way the plas­tic bits pick up or­ganic pol­lu­tants and de­liver them into mus­sels — other sci­en­tists re­port find­ing ny­lon fi­bres packed tight inside lob­ster stom­achs.

The new prob­lem? Biodegrad­able plas­tic bags. Why? Be­cause they re­ally only “biode­grade” to a point, go­ing from un­sightly bag to un­seen plas­tic bits. Then, those bits last as long as any other plas­tic.

Think about this, from a Greek study: “Since 2009, re­searchers from Ar­chi­pel­a­gos In­sti­tute of Marine Con­ser­va­tion have been car­ry­ing out thor­ough re­search through­out Greece on the dis­per­sal of mi­croplas­tic fi­bres within ecosys­tems, study­ing their abun­dance on coastal sed­i­ments, fish, in­verte- brates, sur­face wa­ters, etc. …Un­for­tu­nately, in un­in­hab­ited ar­eas of the Aegean, we found con­cen­tra­tions of mi­croplas­tic fi­bres which are equiv­a­lent to those of the coastal ar­eas of Athens.”

The in­sti­tute de­scribes biodegrad­able plas­tic as “a scan­dal,” say­ing “the ma­te­rial is not ac­tu­ally ‘biode­grade­able’ nor re­cy­clable, it just de­grades faster due to the ef­fect of a chem­i­cal cat­a­lyst break­ing down the plas­tic ma­te­rial into smaller pieces, there­fore en­ter­ing our food chain faster.”

Their work also found startling re­sults: “Another wor­ry­ing as­pect is that all marine or­gan­isms we have an­a­lysed, which in­clude fish and marine in­ver­te­brates, were found to con­tain mi­croplas­tic fibers, ei­ther in smaller or in greater quan­ti­ties, inside the stom­ach. … Un­doubt­edly, micro­plastics are a rapidly grow­ing threat, with­out ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries, as the dis­per­sion of tiny fibers in­creas­ing in all oceans and seas world­wide.”

Yale Univer­sity’s en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence track­ing web­site En­vi­ron­ment 360 was talk­ing about the prob­lem a year ago: “Two Bri­tish stud­ies found that micro­plastics — tiny rem­nants, less than 5 mm in di­am­e­ter, from the break­down of plas­tic trash — made seafloor worms eat less and trans­ferred pol­lu­tants from the plas­tics to the worms. … Micro­plastics have been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in those sed­i­ments since the 1960s, and, although each par­ti­cle is nearly in­vis­i­ble, taken to­gether micro­plastics are the most abun­dant form of solid-waste pol­lu­tion on the planet.”

At the beach in Mo­bile, you see plenty of plas­tic. On your beach, too. But it’s not only what you see.

Out of sight, too of­ten, is bliss­fully out of mind.

— Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc; his col­umn ap­pears on Tues­days, Thurs­days and Satur­days in TC Me­dia’s daily pa­pers.

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