Plastic in Paradise

Posted Tue, 07/27/2021 - 11:00

Guest blog by: Beth Polidoro, Associate Professor, Arizona State University

Located about 2,500 miles to the southwest of Hawai‘i, the U.S. unincorporated territory of American Samoa lies only a hundred miles and a jump across the international dateline from its cultural neighbor, the nation of Samoa. However, both islands share a fate similar to many Pacific island nations. Over the past few decades, problems with solid waste management have been exacerbated by limited space and a steadily increasing amount of imported goods and materials. The increase of lightweight, but not durable, plastic items are visible across much of the region’s coastlines, where plastic debris, such as food and beverage containers, household goods, and synthetic clothing, litter the shores.

Take out containers, plastic bottles, and other debris on a beach in American Samoa.
Take out containers, plastic bottles, and other debris litter many of the beaches in American Samoa, including Faga’alu Beach (Photo: Arizona State University).

In collaboration with the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency (ASEPA), the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR), and the American Samoa Community College (ASCC), Arizona State University (ASU) received a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program to quantify the amount of microplastics and associated contaminants in American Samoa’s marine waters and marine organisms. Between 2017 and 2019, students and faculty from ASCC and ASU, with logistical support from ASEPA and DMWR, collected marine waters, sediments, mussels, snails, and fishes from three locations on the main island of Tutuila. Once back at the ASU lab, samples were analyzed for microplastics, as well as pesticides and other organic contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Interestingly, both microplastics and contaminants were found to be highest in bivalves and snails, compared to marine waters, sediment, and fishes. The most commonly detected items, included microfibers from synthetic fabrics, PCBs, and a variety of persistent pesticides. However, based on measured amounts of contaminants and estimated human consumption rates, there is likely little potential health risk to local residents from eating locally caught mollusks and fishes. It is important to note, that as consumption rates or contaminant concentrations increase, risk levels can increase for segments of the population, such as children. In addition to human health risks, the potential ecological risks to the nearshore marine environment and marine life from plastics particles and organic contaminants are still difficult to estimate.

A hand holding an assortment of small marine debris collected from a sandy beach.
A sample of marine debris collected from a small patch of sand on a remote beach in American Samoa (Photo: Arizona State University).

Regardless, mismanagement of solid waste can impact more than ecological and human health. The buildup of debris along beaches and in lagoons, and nearshore marine areas can also negatively impact livelihoods, tourism, and recreation by reducing opportunities for safe swimming and navigation, littering beaches, and diminishing fisheries harvests. We must all work together to find sustainable solutions to solid waste disposal. Beach cleanups will continue to stress resources and time if the never-ending stream of plastic and other waste cannot be stopped. Recycling, reusing, and repurposing are options, but can be expensive and market dependent. It may be time to rethink and redefine our relationship with plastic. Using data from research like this and working as a community, we can decrease the impacts of plastics in American Samoa and protect important marine habitat and food sources.

Plastic in Paradise

Posted Tue, 07/27/2021 - 11:00

For citation purposes, unless otherwise noted, this article was authored by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

The Marine Debris Blog is no longer accepting comments but continues to display past contributions.

Carol L Armstrong

Tue, 07/27/2021 - 12:05

Is there a report from the U. of Arizona study? Could you please provide a link to the full report or published paper?


Tue, 07/27/2021 - 12:09

The state of our oceans and the lack of solid waste management in so many areas is truly a pandemic. We have collected over 200,000 pounds of the ocean's burden here on Palm Beach, Florida over 6 years. A small percentage of what washes on by if the Gulfstream cannot push it our way to collect. Most of the trash is washing in from the islands to our southeast, Haiti, Cuba, DR, and the countries of Central and South America. For sure, there is our own American trash mixed in. The blog helps us not feel so alone but also adds to the frustration and furthers our commitment to stem the flow when and where we can!


Thu, 05/04/2023 - 08:25

This was an eye-opening article! I had no idea that there was a place in the Pacific Ocean called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," which is a vast area filled with plastic waste. It's shocking to learn that plastic pollution is not only harmful to marine life but also to human health. The article has given me a lot of food for thought and has made me more aware of my plastic consumption. Thank you for sharing such an informative piece!