Project Proposal

Marine Plastic Pollution


Over the past century, plastic has gone from invention to ubiquity due to its versatile, lightweight, and durable nature1,2. These desirable qualities in a commercial material, however, also make its disposal quite challenging. Plastic disposal has become a cause for concern as knowledge of plastic pollution in the marine environment has increased exponentially in the past few decades. By 2014, global plastic resin production increased 689% since 1975 with the largest market sector (~40%) being packaging – all intended for single use5. Jambeck et al. (2015) estimates that 4.8 – 12.7 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal populations each year. Marine plastic pollution can already be found in many environments including all coastal areas and remote beaches, both poles and trapped in sea ice, throughout the open ocean and water column, and on the sea floor3.

The majority of investigations into the impacts of plastics on marine biota to date have focused on entanglement of marine animals as well as ingestion of plastic by many marine species1, 2, 3. Microplastic ingestion has been demonstrated in a large range of marine organisms including but not limited to seabirds, cetaceans, fish, crustaceans, oysters, pelagic larvae, zooplankton, and even corals1, 2. Ingested plastics can obstruct feeding and block the passage of food to the digestive tract or cause food intake to be limited by pseudo-satiation2. Due to a large surface to volume ratio, microplastics are also known to concentrate persistent organic pollutants, aqueous metals, and endocrine disrupting chemicals4, 7. In addition to concentrated environmental pollutants, plastic additives incorporated during manufacture may also pose a problem for marine organisms through leaching. These persistent pollutants, plastic additives, and plastic itself can then pose a major issue when considering trophic transfer. This also should be viewed as a potential human health concern since many impacted species are sold for human consumption6.

Another more recent concern, and the topic of my thesis research, has been the colonization of marine plastic debris by some potentially pathogenic microbes including members of the genus Vibrio8. This genus comprises several species of human and animal pathogens, which have caused several pandemics and countless epidemics across the globe. Since plastics have a degradation time of hundreds to thousands of years, they remain in the environment on drastically long timescales and thus provide habitats for the colonization and possible dissemination of pathogens and their associated infectious diseases8.

Project Description

The outreach product I intend to create will be an infographic targeting policy-makers for action managing plastic pollution. Whether these policy makers will be at the local, state, or national level remains to be determined. Generally this infographic will address the many issues of plastic pollution listed above and why alternative solutions and changed behaviors are imperative. This plastic pollution problem can be addressed in the form of energy expense in plastic production, waste production and disposal, and hazards of plastic in the environment. I will include a call for action section after determining key issues these policy makers are faced with. However, before speaking with these policy makers, I anticipate one of the calls to action recommending the development of a bill similar to that of France’s 2015 Energy Transition For Green Growth bill, which will ban plastic cutlery, plates, and cups by 2020. This bill should also include a ban on straws/stirrers and plastic bags – if I’m not getting carried away. But honestly!

Desired Impact

My hope is for this infographic to resonate with policy makers and support the idea of a ban of single-use plastic. A drastic change in the way we do things related to plastic use and its subsequent disposal is mandatory if we want a healthy and clean environment. Although disposable cutlery, straws, and plastic bags represent a smaller portion of marine debris than beverage bottles and cigarette filters, targeting these single-use items are nonetheless key in reducing our plastic footprint on the marine environment. Seeing these bans established in France provides hope that other nations, including ours, will responsibly follow in succession.


Literature Cited

  1. Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(8), 1596-1605
  2. Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C., & Galloway, T. S. (2011). Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(12), 2588-2597.
  3. Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44(9), 842-852.
  4. Galgani, F., Hanke, G., & Maes, T. (2015). Global distribution, composition and abundance of marine litter. In Marine anthropogenic litter (pp. 29-56). Springer International Publishing.
  5. Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R. (2015). Science 347(6223), 768-771.
  6. Neves, D., Sobral, P., Ferreira, J. L., & Pereira, T. (2015). Ingestion of microplastics by commercial fish off the Portuguese coast. Marine pollution bulletin, 101(1), 119-126.
  7. Wardrop, P., Shimeta, J., Nugegoda, D., Morrison, P., Miranda, A. Tang, M. & Clarke, B. (2016). ‘Chemical Pollutants Sorbed to Ingested Microbeads from Personal Care Products Accumulate in Fish.’ Environ. Sci. Technol. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b06280.
  8. Zettler, E. R., Mincer, T. J., & Amaral-Zettler, L. A. (2013). Life in the “plastisphere”: microbial communities on plastic marine debris. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(13), 7137-7146.