Plastic Never Disappears
Since the early 1900's, plastic has become a part of our everyday lives; some are useful and beneficial to us such as reusable water bottles and tupperware. However, many items are used only once and sometimes carelessly discarded into the environment by accident or intentionally. Once exposed to high temperatures and sunlight, the plastic material becomes brittle and can easily breakdown into smaller pieces. Through this process, the plastic continues to break down into smaller and smaller pieces - even into microscopic pieces called microplastics, but they never disappear.
Researchers have found that microplastics can be consumed by marine animals such as plankton, commercial fish, and even corals. In order to understand the impacts microplastics may have on the local marine life here in St. Thomas, UVI Marine Biology graduate student Danielle Lasseigne has focused her thesis on identifying and measuring the abundance of these microplastics on local beaches, coastal waters, and sand associated with coral reefs.
Originally from Southern California, Danie is in her second year of graduate research with the Center for Marine & Environmental Studies at The University of the Virgin Islands. Her thesis focus, Microplastic Abundance in St. Thomas, was inspired by the article Microplastic Ingestion By Scleractinian Coralsdescribing a study showing corals have been found to ingest micro plastics. This type of research has never been undertaken here in the Territory and Danie's work has made an impression on some local agencies including the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and Coastal Zone Management. Jean-Pierre Oriol, Director of the Coastal Zone Management Program, has subsequently provided a research assistantship using funds from the Department of the Interior's Coral Reef Initiative, for Danie to Continue her work.
Seven beaches across St. Thomas, and one on Water Island are being examined to determine the degree of microplastic contamination at each location. 400 grams of sand from each sampled quadrant is collected and taken to the lab for processing. Additionally, Danie searches for microplastics in coastal waters and sand near coral reefs at each of the selected locations.
It is interesting to note that plastics act somewhat as a magnet to certain toxins, and provide a breeding ground to bacteria. Plastic is more dense than other types of debris and more readily sinks to the ocean floor and onto coral reefs. Here, they can be consumed by bottom dwelling creatures such as sea cucumbers, flounder, clams, and sea urchins, and absorbed into the sea grasses that turtles eat, as well as reef dwelling animals. Ultimately, the fish we consume are part of this food chain, and therefore, so are we.
Danie hopes to inspire others to continue the research in St. Thomas and other communities around the Caribbean. Already we can see a discussion taking place nationally on the microbeads used in facial cleansing products which have recently been banned.
Danie is available to talk to schools or community members who are interested in learning more. And, you can help! Should you wish to volunteer to participate in this research Danie can be contacted at Danielle.Lasseigne@hotmail.com.
Further reading and additional source materials
Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans by Charles Moore and Cassandras Phillips