What lurks beneath the waves
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 email@example.com; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers.