Mapping Plastic: Aquaculture’s Styrofoam Beaches

Day 5: Pleasant Beach to Fort Ward Boat Ramp

This article is part of a survey of Bainbridge Island’s 53-mile coastline. We’re circumnavigating the entire island to collect and make observations of the kinds (and amount) of plastics we see along the way to try to answer the question: Where does it come from?

The single-most prevalent plastic we find on our beaches, in our citizen-y-science-kind-of-way, is polystyrene. There’s so much of it, we see it in every shape, from tiny single particles the size of a snowflake to car-size chunks.

Styro-mobile. This car-sized chunk came riding in on the sea. © Liesl Clark

Styro-mobile. This small car-sized chunk came riding in on the sea. © Liesl Clark

But wait, this other one is just 300 yards down the beach. © Liesl Clark

But wait, here’s another enormous one just 300 yards down the beach. © Liesl Clark

Where are these huge styro-chunks coming from?

They’re used underneath floats and docks. The aquaculture industry is known to utilize polystyrene to keep their operations afloat. But nature eventually takes its course. Boring isopods damage expanded polystyrene floats under docks and, in the process, they expel copious numbers of microplastic particles. This paper describes the impacts of these mini drilling marine isopods in aquaculture facilities and docks and the resultant pollution the isopod-infested styrofoam is causing.

Here’s an opening statement in the article (I’ve taken out all of the references for ease of reading):

Like other microplastics (defined as <5 mm in diameter) in the marine environment, these particles may have detrimental effects to marine organisms. Plastics persist for hundreds to thousands of years in normal oceanic conditions. Also, polystyrene fragments and other minute plastics in the marine environment are readily colonized by biofilm and other organisms causing them to sink. Thus, these particles may interact with benthic and pelagic organisms. Ingested microplastics may cause both toxicological effects by transmitting bioaccumulating toxins and possibly physical effects by occluding feeding structures or inducing a false indication of satiation.

What I get from this article is that these little organisms, like shipworms and wood lice, bore into the styrofoam under floats and docks and in so doing they shed tiny plastic particles into the water, like a drill spewing mini-plastic shavings. The isopods start to feel full, after dining on the stiff white stuff, and eventually die off because their fast food source ain’t so good for them. The little ubiquitous particles end up not only in our bellies, but everywhere. On every continent. They even look like plankton and are now a part of our food chain. Experts, for years, have estimated microplastic particles are outnumbering plankton 6:1 in the marine environment. The bigger fish eat the ever-present plastics and then we eat the fish. End of story. The plastics are now in us, and they’re toxic.

Another little factoid is that mussels and other bivalves raft over the deep blue seas on freed polystyrene floats to foreign lands — lands where they don’t belong, where they’re considered alien and invasive.

Alien bivalves are the plastic-fed zombies of the future.

Unlucky Beached Bivalves © Liesl Clark

Unlucky Beached Bivalves, Rafting on Styrofoam © Liesl Clark

I’ve picked up so much beached polystyrene and other everyday plastics over the years, our personal dumping fees at our local transfer station can be astounding, given we produce as little waste as we can as a family.

Kids love the mints (or is it gum?) that come in these plastic containers. Why do they have to be packaged in a container that will remain here forever? © Liesl Clark

Kids love the mints (or is it gum?) that come in these plastic containers. Why do they have to be packaged in a container that will remain here forever? © Liesl Clark

Aquaculture’s equipment and incidentals are also polluting our beaches.

Shellfish Netting? © Liesl Clark

Shellfish Netting © Liesl Clark

Plenty of this plastic netting washes ashore, nets used to hold mussels or oysters.

We find tons of these:
No clue what this is used for, but it has aquaculture written all over it. © Liesl Clark

Some sort of substrate netting used in aquaculture  © Liesl Clark

 The aquaculture industry has all sorts of specialty items, 100% plastic:
I beg to differ. This specimen is not sea-fit. © Liesl Clark

I beg to differ. This specimen is not sea-fit. © Liesl Clark

 But we can’t blame it all on aquaculture and the marine industry. We’re all responsible for the myriad plastics in the sea that wash up on our beaches. Plastic floats, it’s buoyant and lightweight, it moves with flooding waters and wind. It mostly comes from us, from our homes.

Beached Sign, Tattered By the Sea © Liesl Clark

Beached Sign, Tattered By the Sea © Liesl Clark

The polystyrene that isn’t from marine floats and the aquaculture industry is from us, our fast food takeout containers, styro-block packaging, and packing peanuts flowing into our seas from inland rivers. According to Beachapedia:

The ‘Two Rivers’ study in Los Angeles found that over 1.6 billion pieces of plastic foam were headed to the ocean over a three-day period during surveys in 2004/5. 71% of 2.3 billion plastic items in the survey were foam items and that made up 11% of the overall weight of plastic pollution collected during the surveys.

If that isn’t enough to sound an alarm for you about styrofoam, there are plenty of studies that can fill you in on how polystyrene in the marine environment acts as a sponge for persistent organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT. Chelsea Rochman’s study of the beaches around San Diego shows that the most toxic plastics found in the marine environment is, you guessed it, styrofoam. Her lab fish that ate it didn’t fare so well.

Solutions?
1) Stop using styrofoam: If you mail order a product, ask the shipper to ship it without styrofoam.

2) Refuse takeout containers made of styrofoam.

3) Recycle what styrofoam you can. Our island has a recycle event twice a year for styrofoam and Seattle has a facility that recycles. Just type into your browser “Styrofoam Recycling in (name of your city)” and see if there’s a facility or green organization near you that will take your styrofoam. If not, find the nearest recycling facility (even if it’s a few hours away) and be the person in your community who organizes a styrofoam recycling event on Earth Day each year. Your community will likely get behind the costs of renting a U-Haul to get the stuff to a safe recycling operation.

4) Get out there for yourself and walk your shorelines, river shores, wild places. Pick up what styrofoam you find and start asking questions about where it might come from. Educate everyone you can.

If you’re interested in reading more about the previous legs of this survey, here’s a list of our stages so far:

Special Thanks:

A special shout-out to Julie Skotheim who took time out of her day to join us on this leg of our journey.

Marine "Rope," 100% Plastic © Liesl Clark

Marine “Rope,” 100% Plastic © Liesl Clark

 

3 thoughts on “Mapping Plastic: Aquaculture’s Styrofoam Beaches

  1. Pingback: Mapping Plastic: Aquaculture’s Styrofoam Beaches | the green transition

  2. Liesl this series is going to eventually help to change policies in the plastic industry. If we make power plants that emit carbon pollutants responsible for their emissions why can’t we force the plastic industry to develop only products that have a positive impact on the environment? It seems analogous to me, but will require an objective balancing of benefits exceeding direct and indirect costs. Are you prepared to publicize the enviro-researchers? They don’t get a helping hand from those who will help the public realize the dire consequences of continuing on the technical course we are presently on.

    There is a typo of “as” when it should be “ask” in today’s blog.

    Dad

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my word, I better go fix that, Dad! I need an editor. Thanks for the heads up. Yes, we’re trying to think of how we can help affect a change and the best thing I know I can do is research and write, because that’s what I do. Perhaps a film, definitely more hands-on investigating and photographing. And the first place we can all have impact is to REFUSE styrofoam, i.e. just say no to acquiring it, either through your purchasing choices or through action that we can take to ban the use of it in docks and floats.

      Like

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