News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 9, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, August 9, 2018 and Island Ad-Vantages, August 2, 2018
Stonington scientist warns of microplastics in the ocean

Abby Barrows

Marine scientist and aquaculturist Abby Barrows at her oyster farm in Deer Isle.

Penobscot Bay Press file photo

by Tina Oddleifson

Plastic has been making headlines lately. In March, an international team of scientists found that the “great Pacific garbage heap,” an accumulation of submerged plastic garbage floating between Hawaii and California since the 1970s, has grown to be twice the size of Texas. Over the past several years, an increasing number of communities around the world have passed ordinances banning or limiting single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam, including one enacted by the Town of Blue Hill in April. In recent weeks, plastic straws have been in the news, as companies like Starbucks are eliminating them in response to growing customer demand.

But it’s the plastic you can’t see that may be doing the greatest damage, said Stonington resident and marine research scientist Abby Barrows at a lunchtime talk sponsored by the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington July 27. For the past five years Barrows has been studying pollution from microplastics, a pervasive form of plastic debris found in the environment, measuring 5mm (about the size of a grain of rice) or less.

Barrows was able to amass one of the largest datasets of microplastic pollution in the world because of a unique partnership with Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers with outdoor adventure skills to collect scientific data in hard-to-reach places. Over 1,300 water samples, collected from every ocean in the world, were regularly delivered to Stonington, where Barrows analyzed them in her lab.

Ninety percent of the water samples showed the existence of microplastic pollution, and most of it was made up of microfibers measuring 1.5mm or less in size. Her research also found that microplastics are three times more pervasive in the marine environment than originally predicted by scientists who used the fine mesh Neuston net for collecting samples. In June, Barrows released the final results of her study for peer review in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution. Her research was done in collaboration with marine biologist Dr. Chris Petersen at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where Barrows recently completed her master’s degree. It has placed her at the center of a growing scientific movement that is sounding the alarm over worldwide plastic consumption.

So where do microplastics come from and what can be done about them?

Since the 1960s, the use of plastic has increased twenty-fold worldwide, from 15 million metric tons a year to 350 million metric tons. Of this, 8 million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world’s oceans every year, and by 2050 plastic is expected to outweigh fish, says Barrows.

Microplastics and fibers come from several sources, including microbeads used in cosmetic products like facial scrubs and toothpaste, and polyester fabrics used in 70 percent of manufactured clothing, which release thousands of plastic fibers every time they are washed. It also comes from larger pieces of plastic that break down into tiny pieces after making their way into our waterways from inefficient waste-water treatment plants, garbage spills and litter.

The scope of the problem and its potential impact on the environment and human health is hard to fathom. Not only is petroleum-based plastic releasing dangerous chemicals on its own, the tiny filaments become way stations that absorb additional toxins in the sea. These are eaten by fish and other marine animals, eventually making their way up the food chain. In addition to seafood, microplastic is found in tap and bottled water, beer, and even honey. In a recent study of 260 brands of bottled water, 93 percent were found to contain microplastics, says Barrows. We do not yet know what the long-term impact is on human health and more research needs to be done, but “there is sufficient scientific data to begin mitigation now,” she said.

Much of the increase in plastic consumption is due to single-use sources like food and beverage containers, plastic shopping bags, and packaging. The most effective means for addressing the problem is to keep them out of the environment in the first place. While recycling is encouraged, Barrows feels that it can falsely lead people into thinking they are solving the problem. Only 5 to 10 percent of plastic worldwide is actually recycled, and even products that utilize recycled plastics, like some fleece clothing manufacturers are doing, will keep emitting plastic microfibers into the water system.

Barrows is currently working with the Plastic Pollution Coalition in California and Maine-based nonprofit Upstream to develop a legislative toolkit to help individuals, communities, nonprofits and legislators to start taking action.

“Reducing our own consumption is the first step, but working in collaboration with manufacturers and distributors to change their products is even more important,” she said.

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics (2016). Report by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company.

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company.
Abby Barrows

Marine scientist and aquaculturist Abby Barrows at her oyster farm in Deer Isle.

Penobscot Bay Press file photo