By: Amanda Sartain, Extension Program Assistant at Mississippi State University
Since 1988, thousands of Mississippi Coastal Cleanup volunteers have contributed hours of hard work and dedication to the removal of marine debris, which includes any solid, man-made material that ends up in the marine environment either intentionally or unintentionally. Millions of pounds of marine debris have been removed from Mississippi beaches, waterways, and barrier islands over the years. Unsurprisingly, commonly-collected trash items have included cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic bottles, and straws. During last year’s cleanup event, over 14 tons of trash were collected. Cigarette butts, food wrappers, and plastic beverage bottles were once again among the most common items found.
Marine debris has harmful effects on our environment, including habitat destruction, animal entanglement, and ingestion. One of the most harmful and abundant forms of plastic marine debris are microplastics— pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters, which is a little smaller than the size of a pencil eraser top. They come in different forms including microbeads, microfilms, microfibers, or micro-fragments. These small plastic pieces are often mistaken as food and can be ingested by organisms ranging from small plankton to large whale sharks. Not only are plastics indigestible, they can also be toxic to the animals that consume them. Plastic has an absorbency property, like a sponge, causing it to grip chemicals from the water. There are many kinds of chemicals in seawater—from pesticides, herbicides, to BPA—that are very harmful to humans and wildlife and that can be absorbed by plastic.
Marine debris of all sizes, especially microplastics, are detrimental to the health of our ocean and its wildlife. The best way to decrease the plastic problem our world is facing is to prevent any plastic from entering our waterways and ocean. By determining the distribution of debris and identifying potential hotspots of microplastic concentrations, we can start to identify sources and possible ways to reduce the marine debris entering our coastal environments. This year, during the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup, citizen scientists will be collecting sediment and water samples for microplastic analysis as part of a U.S. Gulf Coast-wide monitoring project. The water and sediment samples that are collected will be processed and analyzed for the number of observed microplastics (microbeads, microfilms, microfibers, or micro-fragments).
The 29th annual Mississippi Coastal Cleanup will take place Saturday, November 18th, from 8 to 11am. With 50 sites across Jackson, Harrison, and Hancock counties, volunteers of all ages are encouraged to participate to keep our beaches beautiful. After the cleanup, volunteers will be provided a free lunch and a chance to win some awesome prizes (*cough, kayaks, *cough). If you’re interested in participating, please register at http://coastalcleanup.extension.msstate.edu/.
This event would not be possible without support from the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation and the NOAA Marine Debris Program.