SEARCHING FOR MICROPLASTICS IN THE SALISH SEA

by Julie Masura, Spring 2020
Photo by Julie Masura
Photo by Julie Masura

SEARCHING FOR MICROPLASTICS IN THE SALISH SEA

by Julie Masura, Spring 2020

 

“What do you know about plastics?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

This was the beginning of microplastics research at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters. After hosting the first workshop on plastic marine debris at the University of Washington Tacoma, NOAA approached us to develop an efficient method to concentrate plastics, specifically microplastics, from environmental samples. Game on!

We assembled a team of researchers that included a visiting scientist, graduate student, several undergraduates, and me to work on this project, creating the first microplastics team at the University of Washington Tacoma. This group worked together to come up with novel ideas for collecting environmental samples and processing them in order to isolate plastic debris. The initial work involved a number of failures and not knowing if we would be able to find any plastics from our work. Unfortunately, we found plastics in ALL of the samples collected.

Manta net sampling surface waters. Photos by Julie Masura

First, we needed to determine how much plastics are in the ocean. Of course, this was a lot for one lab. What the agency was interested in was developing methods useful for other labs all over the world. The approach was to define what plastics are common in the ocean environment and where to capture these plastics. Over 348 million tons of plastics were manufactured in 2017, and the quantity is increasing yearly due to the demand. The majority of plastic polymers are polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All have densities either less than fresh water or just a little more than fresh water, so they spend much of their time either at the surface or in the water column. After initial sampling, another polymer-type was added…polystyrene, or Styrofoam, due to the regular occurrence in the field samples.

Next was to take the definition of microplastics and determine where to sample these plastic bits. This material can be found at the surface and within the water column, in the sediments, and strewn along beaches. To collect the surface water samples a manta net, fashioned from a manta ray, and was modified to capture floating debris from the surface. Samples within the water column were collected using a bottle called a Nisken that can trap water at a chosen depth. Ocean sediments were gathered with a sediment grabber known as a van Veen. Beach material was gathered by a simple garden trowel.

Surface video by Kit Spier, underwater video by John F. Williams.

Once the material was gathered, the solid material was isolated and processed in the lab. The laboratory techniques were simple: lots of sieving, peroxide oxidation (to remove the natural organic material), and density separation in the dense solution to separate the plastics/polymers from the overall sample. And so, the characterizations began. Individual pieces of plastics were removed from the processed material using a microscope and tweezers. Both the mass and volume of plastic were compared with the totals of the collected sample.

Lauren Reetz, University of Washington Tacoma Undergraduate Researcher, processing water samples. Photo by Julie Masura.
Microplastics found in surface waters of Puget Sound. Photo by Ryan Moriarity.
Microfibers found in sediment sample in Puget Sound. Photo by MaggieJo Baer.

Since the beginning of our project, over the forty undergraduate and graduate research students have contributed to the work in the Salish Sea and other locations around the world. Twenty local, national, and international groups have partnered with researchers from the Center for Urban Waters. Since 2008, nearly two thousand samples have been collected and analyzed to help understand the distribution of plastics in our ocean environment.

Student researchers and Julie Masura (right) sieving water samples on the R/V Barnes in Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island. Photo by Cheryl Greengrove.

Many community partners have joined the effort to not only collect data, but also to educate the public concerning the plastic pollution issue. Sound Experience is a nonprofit environmental education group that teaches the public about issues facing the Salish Sea, microplastics and marine debris included. Sound Experience sails the 1913 historic tall ship, the Adventuress (shown below), and uses the vessel as a platform to teach groups about the maritime industry and environmental stewardship. In 2019, over two thousand people crossed the decks and just fewer than one hundred school groups learned about environmental issues impacting the Salish Sea. Educators on board teach participants how to sample for microplastics using the manta net previously mentioned. Samples collected by these groups are sent to the University of Washington Tacoma to be processed and shared via an online map. Groups are led through a discussion on impacts of plastics, as well as how to reduce (AND PREVENT) additional plastic pollution in the ocean. Sound Experience is continuing to create ambassadors to educate the public after they leave the boat.

National Historic Landmark tall ship Adventuress, a 133-foot (41 m) gaff-rigged schooner. Photo by John F. Williams

Over the years, most of the research has been to create a baseline for the amount of plastics in surface waters of the Salish Sea. We discovered that less than ten percent of the solids found in these samples contain plastic/polymers, with an average of less than 0.7 percent. This sounds like very little, but the fact that the material is found at all should be a wake-up call. As the surface water work continues, sediments in the Puget Sound are also being explored. 

Through many partnerships and with the help of motivated student researchers, our work at the University of Washington Tacoma continues to characterize and better understand the distribution and impacts of micro plastics in the Salish Sea.

Julie Masura is a senior lecturer and research scientist at the University of Washington Tacoma. As a member of the Environmental Science Faculty, she teaches a number of earth and physical science courses. Julie has the honor to mentor undergraduate students in research as they complete their degree. This is the connection with her microplastics research. While working with a cadre of students, Masura has developed laboratory and field methods to collect microplastics, monitored microplastic abundances in Puget Sound, detected polymer fibers in the Puyallup River Watershed, and advised many research groups throughout the world.

Table of Contents, Issue #7, Spring 2020

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