A Sea of Plastic- The State of Our Shorelines

Sally Welburn – Ocean Science Student, University of Plymouth

Sally is the first of our collaborators, she is going to be writing a monthly piece as she works Alongside Professor Richard Thompson,  designing and carrying out a project this summer to establish relationships in abundance of different types of micro plastic found along the sedimentary beaches in my home in North Devon. This is an intro and we’re really looking forward to being able to share more of this as it unfolds. 

There is no denying that plastic holds a firm grip of our everyday lives. Whether we sip our drinks through it or wear it on our feet, plastic really is everywhere. According to European studies, the production of plastic has increased from 5 million tons in 1950s to 280 million tons in 2011. We’d be really lost without it.

Since plastic was first reported in the marine environment in the 1970’s, it has gained increasing attention by environmentalists and the general public alike. If you imagine that global production of plastic weighs that of the entire human population, there’s no surprise that this indispensable material ends up in the most unlikely of places.

In the past decade marine scientists gained insight into areas of accumulation and breakdown of marine plastic at sea, known as Gyres. Arguably, less attention has been paid to the shorelines where much marine plastic comes to rest. Often by the time fragments of plastic reach our shores, they are extremely small, appearing invisible to the naked eye. While seemingly insignificant, these tiny plastic particles are super absorbent of harmful toxins in our oceans. If eaten, they can bioaccumulate up the food chain, harming many species as they do so. Too many of us are familiar with the soul-destroying sight of sea birds washed up, stomachs swollen with fragments of plastic.

I want to know what type of plastic is most abundant on our shorelines and what is its most likely source? Working alongside leading experts at the University of Plymouth, I am carrying out a research project to identify these tiny plastic fragments, otherwise known as micro plastics.

Not only will the study aid the identification of the source of the micro plastic, it will also be used to raise awareness of these microscopic pollutants. From initial sampling surveys along the North Devon coastline, through to the identification of plastic found, keep up to date with the progress of my study as it begins in June.

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