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Study Shows Alarming Increase in Plastic Microfibers in the Ocean

View on deck of research boat and box core used to collect sediment samples for study
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Researchers have discovered an alarming increase in plastics pollution in the deep ocean floor off Santa Barbara, suggesting human efforts to reduce using the everlasting product should include finding new ways to wash our clothes.

The study by oceanographers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego discovered an exponential increase in microscopic plastic fragments in sediment layers at the bottom of the ocean since plastic went into wide use at the end of World War II.

“You have this record of going back in time,” said Scripps microbiologist Jennifer Brandon, lead author of the study published this week in the journal “Science Advances.”

Just like tree rings can be used to study life on land, the layers of sediment about 1,900-deep in the Santa Barbara Basin are “a reflection of what was happening above it in the water,” Brandon said. Researchers sifted through 200 years of sediment, each half-centimeter representing about two years of history.

“A good chunk of our plastic footprint is ending up in the ocean,” Brandon said. “We are dumping it into our sediment record. We are leaving this record of plastic behind for future generations.”

Sample of sediment used in study just after it was cut open from a box core
Sample of sediment used in study just after it was cut open from a box core | Courtesy: Scripps Institute of Oceanography

The study showed that by 2010, people were dumping 10 times as much plastic into the basin as before World War II.

Plastic microfibers in the sediment showed up as microfibers from clothing, broken down plastic bottles and plastic bags, remnants from fishing nets and gear that wore down over time, swimwear and wetsuits, and other plastic products.

“The vast majority were fibers that come from washing machines,” Brandon said.

Fibers from synthetic clothing products flow through drains from washing machines to wastewater treatment plants, Brandon said. The fibers are so small, they slip through filters and “wash right out into the ocean.”

Marine life eat the microfibers, which are mistaken for plankton. The result in fish can be liver and brain damage and tumors.

“As far as what it does to them, we are only just seeing the effects,” Brandon said. “There is a lot of unknown mystery of what it’s going to do to ecosystems.”

As governments pass laws banning plastic straws and single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, Brandon suggested more needs to be done, including looking at how we wash our clothes.

According to the study, scientists estimate that 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic waste flow into the ocean every year.

“We need to make some changes at a high level,” she said. “We need to re-engineer wastewater treatment plants. Every new washing machine sold needs to have a filter on it.”

Perhaps, she said, clothing companies should be prohibited from using some manmade fabrics that shed plastic microfibers or, at least be required to make them more energy efficient.

“Do we have to require everyone to wash their clothes in certain kinds of washing machines? I think some of those things might be the case,” Brandon said. “A brand new fleece jacket can relate like 8,000 microbes in one washing. Maybe those things need to be regulated. Maybe there needs to be a plastic tax on things…

“It’s easy for us to ban plastic straws, but everyone needs to wear clothes and wash clothes. It’s harder to just ban them.”

Already, consumers can act. Filters can be purchased for the washing machine. Brandon suggested using a “Cora Ball,” which gets tossed in with the load of clothes to collect microfibers. Clothes can be cleaned inside a “Guppyfriend Washing Bag,” which also keeps microfibers from going down the drain.

“I don’t know if we are too late,” Brandon said. “I don’t think we are…I hope we are going to solve this problem and that someday I won’t have a career anymore in plastic.”

Brandon’s suggestions aren’t just for those who live on the coasts. In the middle of the country, microfibers are released into rivers and eventually make their way to the oceans.

“This is a great problem in the Great Lakes,” she said.

Brandon said the study supports a new proposed geological epoch called “Anthropocene.” The rise of plastics since 1945 shows humanity’s effect on the Earth, which scientists refer to as “The Great Acceleration.”

Top Image: Box Core on Deck | Courtesy: Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego

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