Marine Debris 101 - April 2020 Bowling Green State University Presentation

In an effort to continue education and outreach through remote learning, NOAA Marine Debris Program Staff have been moving to virtual presentations. This recorded presentation from April 2020, provides university students an overview of the marine debris issue, identifies opportunities for students to be part of the solution, and outlines a lesson overview of a personal waste audit.


Hello everyone, my name is Sarah Lowe and I am the Great Lakes Regional Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program. Not too terribly long ago, I too was a BGSU (Bowling Green State University) Falcon. I received both my bachelor and masters of science in biology from BG. Today I am happy to be able to share with all of you some information that is timely for Earth Day - the important environmental issue of marine debris in our oceans and Great Lakes.

I'm going to first walk through what marine debris is, where it comes from, and why it is a problem. But most importantly, I'll talk about how each of you can be part of the solution and help! You'll also have an assignment to go along with the lecture, which you'll get further instruction on later as well.

So first off, what am I talking about when I say the term "marine debris?" Marine debris is essentially anything that is solid and man-made that is in our marine waters and Great Lakes, that shouldn't be there. It is things like small pieces of plastic, up to large abandoned vessels and everything in between. It does NOT include things like tree limbs, or algae, those are things that are not man-made, or things like oil, because that is not a solid. But there are other offices within NOAA that deal with oil pollution issues.

When you think about marine debris items, especially plastics, you might have a pretty good idea as to where it originates. We classify marine debris sources into two broad categories: ocean or lake-based and land-based activities. Ocean or lake-based activities that can be a source of marine debris include fishing, offshore oil and gas platform operations, cargo ships, and the generation of abandoned and derelict vessels. Land-based sources are far more common and include littering, dumping, poor waste management practices, storm drain discharges, and extreme weather events. We separate these sources in an attempt to manage them, but the ultimate source of marine debris is us, humans. We have the ability to generate marine debris every day.

Let's talk through some of the marine debris items in a bit more detail. Some of our largest marine debris are abandoned and derelict vessels. These are either commercial or recreational vessels that are lost or abandoned, often generated from extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. Because they are made of persistent synthetic materials, they are around for a very long time. That time and also their size creates habitat damage and they are a navigational hazard.

Derelict fishing gear is another type of marine debris that we address. This is either commercial gear, like nets, lines, and lobster or crab pots, but also includes recreational fishing gear like common filament fishing like from your average fishing pole. A lot of fishing material is made of plastic and therefore does not biodegrade in the environment. This is the type of debris that often entangles wildlife, if you've seen pictures of those. And I'll show some in a few.

The most common form of marine debris is plastic. It is estimated that there are 8 million metric tons of plastic that enter the ocean every year. Plastic bottles, bags, containers, etc. are not biodegradable. Instead, they weather and break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.

Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters in size, or the size of an eraser head on a pencil. As I already mentioned, some are created from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, but they can also be manufactured to be that small. Microbeads were microplastics that used to be found in a lot of personal care products, like face washes and toothpaste, to act as an abrasive or exfoliant. Thankfully there has been some recent legislation that has started to phase those out. Also pre-production pellets, also referred to as nurdles, are round or cylindrical pellets that are transferred to manufacturing plants to be created into larger plastic items. Lastly, a type of marine microplastic that is growing in attention are microfibers. Many of you may not realize, but a lot of our clothing and textiles are a type of plastic called polyester. unfortunately, those fibers shed and we're seeing a lot of them showing up in the environment, in the fish we eat, and in us as well.

This slide is showing you some examples of those microplastics I just talked about. So we have microbeads on the left, microfibers in the middle, and the pre-production pellets on the right. Those are all the primary sources of microplastics. The secondary sources are displayed there on the bottom, which is the breakdown of large plastic items over time - like water bottles. They are broken down by UV light and wave action to become smaller and smaller pieces.

All of these items that we just talked about are common types of marine debris, but why should we care or why is marine debris a problem? When left in the environment, marine debris is a hazard to wildlife. Many forms of debris can entangle or trap wildlife leading to injury or death. Nets or traps that are lost continue to catch fish and other species without being retrieved, and that's called ghost fishing. Plastics and microplastics are ingested by wildlife like sea birds and fish, leading to possible starvation and death. Large debris can be a hazard to navigation and safety, and can also transport invasive species across the ocean, or smother sensitive habitats, like reefs or sea grasses. And lastly, many people do not realize that marine debris impacts our economy. Tourists will not visit dirty beaches. Fish lost to ghost fishing are not able to be revenue for fisherman. And it can also cause damage to property. So all of these reasons are why we care and why marine debris is a problem.

So now you are all experts on marine debris! But right now I wanted to share with you all a clip that we have of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, because this is a topic that we are often asked about. In particular, there has been a lot of press on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

So this next slide is a video that we put together that sets the facts straight and I wanted to share it with you. So let me go ahead and hit play. And take a look!


*video audio* 

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Well first, let's talk about what it's not. It's not a floating island or trash, like a garbage dump or a landfill. It's also not the only patch. They exist all throughout the ocean and the Pacific garbage patch just happens to be the most famous. Garbage patches are large areas of marine debris concentration that are formed by rotating ocean currents called gyres. Kind of like big whirlpools that suck things in. A garbage patch is made of tiny plastic pieces called microplastics that are less than 5 millimeters long. It's more like pepper flakes swirling in a soup than something you can skim off the surface. You might come across some larger items like plastic bottles, but it's possible to sail through a garbage patch and not see anything. And they're a big problem for the ocean and us.

People often ask why we can't just scoop up all the marine debris in the ocean. And the answer is, unfortunately it's just not that simple. The first challenge is the sheer size of these garbage patches - they're huge! They're constantly moving with ocean currents and there is debris from the ocean surface all the way down to the sea floor. Not to mention all of the marine life we would disrupt if we tried to just scoop up debris. So what can we do? Well the ultimate solution is prevention and we need to keep that as our highest priority. We can reduce, reuse, and recycle to keep trash out of the ocean in the first place! And we can participate in things like shoreline cleanups. It's a lot easier to deal with debris before it gets to the ocean. Because until we stop marine debris at the source, we'll just be cleaning it up forever.

*End Video Audio*


Ok, so that was information on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At the end of the video, it started to talk about how everyone can be part of the solution. Each individual, both you and I, can help. So we're going to talk through some ways that that is possible.

The first way to help, is to clean up what is already in the environment. There are lots of opportunities for beach cleanups or just clean up in your own neighborhood. Because as we learned, trash travels and becomes marine debris. So there are several links on the page for different organizations that organize cleanups, and who also collect data on what their volunteers are finding. Data collection can be important for understanding the effectiveness of proposed solutions or policies, for example like product bans and bag bans and styrofoam bans, and things like that. So here are some examples of some cleanup opportunities. There is a big cleanup every September, called the International Coastal Cleanup, and so I encourage you to check that out. That's a day when people around the globe are out cleaning up shorelines and rivers and neighborhoods to help address the issue of marine debris.

While cleanups are important to do, the ultimate solution to the marine debris issue is preventing it from getting in the environment in the first place. We like to use the analogy of an overflowing bathtub. We can try and cleanup the mess and bail the water, but it will keep being a problem until we turn off the taps. 

There are key things that we each can do to prevent marine debris. The first is by practicing the 4 R's. Many people are familiar with the 3 R's of Reducing the amount of waste we produce, Reusing items when we can, and Recycling materials if we throw them away. But we add in a fourth, but first R, and that's Refuse. Refuse to use single-use plastics like bags, plastic silverware, plastic bottles, and even plastic straws. Either opt out, or choose reusable alternatives instead.

Similarly, there are things each of us can do to minimize the amount of waste we generate in our homes. First, we should make sure we are recycling and composting as much as we can. So have those bins ready! Two, we can buy in bulk to reduce the number of single-use containers that are purchased. Three, we can all use reusable items like silverware and storage containers. Four, we can refuse single-use plastics, in particular straws and choose reusable or paper options instead. And lastly, we're all guilty of getting the styrofoam to-go containers at restaurants, particularly now. Instead, you could bring your own reusable to-go containers to restaurants. During this time though, it would be good to alert the restaurant in advance of pickup, that you'll be bringing your own container. They would appreciate that so they don't already prepackage something.

So with all of these great waste reduction tips in mind, you are going to all have an assignment to participate in a waste challenge or a waste audit. You will be keeping track of how much waste you produce in a week. I promise you'll be surprised at the results! 

In order to help keep track, I've sent your instructor this excel table. We have columns for each of the days and common types of items that people throw away on the right hand side. They are grouped by things that are recyclable or commonly recyclable in most places, things that are compostable, and the other things that are trash that are usually not recyclable - like that styrofoam and maybe contaminated paper and other things like that. Right now we are not tracking if you are recycling the items or throwing them in the trash. So even if you throw away a can, it gets tallied in the aluminum and tin row because it is a type of material that typically CAN be recycled. So it's all about the amount of waste you are producing, not so much about how it is being disposed of. Unless your teacher decides to build that into the assignment.

So here's an example of one day completed on the sheet. I've thrown away one sheet of paper, two beverage cans, a plastic milk jug which is the plastic bottle, a yogurt tub which is the plastic container, and a used paper towel. And then I've also thrown away a banana peel, an apple core, and an orange peel as my food scraps in the compostable section. So that's an example of how it will be filled out.

Now your instructor, Bethany, may have some additional work for you to do with the data so check the assignment instructions. She'll provide some more information there. But at the end of the week, I also want you all to reflect on the results and ask yourselves three things: Did I recycle what I could? Could I use less by choosing reusable? And then try and think of one thing that you can personally do to improve your results. Maybe it is using a refillable and reusable water bottle. Or maybe it's choosing not to use a straw. It can be something simple and easy for you to do on a personal level. And then try and implement and stick to that change to make it a habit because each of you can be part of the solution.

So I've enjoyed sharing the marine debris information with you! If you do have any questions, feel free to send me an email at Thank you and happy Earth Day!