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Microplastics: There’s nothing small about them! By Katelyn Hoisington

Here is some insight from one of our dedicated volunteers: Katelyn Hoisington. Katelyn has helped with numerous conservation and education projects around the museum.

Microplastics: There’s nothing small about them!

Marine microplastics are small in size, yet are a pretty big deal! Plastic is such an incredibly common substance that few stop and think about its complexity, but this substance is incredibly important. Many of the things that make plastic an ideal material also make it harmful. Plastic is tough and extremely versatile. Many of your clothes likely contain plastic, and you may be drinking from a plastic water bottle. Due to its incredible versatility and low cost to produce, plastic has become a major industry, however we still don’t know everything about it. We do know that it photodegrades rather than biodegrades, meaning that it will break down into smaller and smaller pieces without losing its characteristics.

When plastics enter the ocean, they will photodegrade due to the presence of UV light and wave energy. They may be ingested by any number of organisms, especially bivalves and other filter feeders that form the bottom of the food chain. As you move up the trophic cascade into higher order predators, the concentration of plastic increases. Large, upper level predators such as tuna may contain dozens of microplastic fibers and pellets that may not be visible or removable from the meat. With roughly a tenth of all fish containing some trace of plastic, odds are pretty good that your next seafood meal may contain some unexpected components. It is not believed that most plastics are necessarily harmful once in the body, but especially in marine and freshwater animals the buildup of plastic material can cause death due to starvation.

Several organizations are working to reduce plastic pollution, including the successful banthebead campaign that resulted in an Act that outlawed the addition of plastic microbeads to cosmetic products. The Ocean Cleanup is an organization that aims to globally reduce quantities of ocean plastics through a new system, and the International Coastal Cleanup is a successful citizen science program that is aimed at giving ordinary citizens a way to effectively impact their environment.

The VLM is currently working on a number of efforts to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. We are working with TREX, a company that recycles plastics into materials for decking, benches, and other things by collecting plastic bags and film to be recycled. We will also be collecting monofilament fishing line, which can cause animals to become trapped when it is left in the environment. Through these and more efforts, the VLM is committed to making the world a cleaner place.

Katelyn (2 years of service)

Meet her and other dedicated volunteers like her at the VLM! Applications are found here.

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