By John H. Tibbetts
More than 10 million tons of plastic debris escape the waste stream and enter the sea every year, degrading into tiny shards called microplastics, according to Tracy Mincer, Ph.D., who is investigating how plastics disrupt ocean health and sea life.
“In terms of fossil hydrocarbon tonnage, plastic pollution can be viewed as one of the biggest oil spills in history, reoccurring each year, but no one is looking at it that way,” says Mincer, research professor at FAU Harbor Branch and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College. Mincer is part of a growing international effort to learn how to measure and understand marine microplastics.
Plastic debris inadvertently discharged into the ocean is on par with the nine largest marine oil spills in history combined, in terms of fossil hydrocarbon amount, Mincer said. As marine microplastics break up, they leach smaller hydrocarbons that might attract colonizing microbes similar to those that respond to oil spills. Additionally, microplastics can be the same size as the prey of many marine animals. These particles have been found in the digestive tracts of more than 100 different species, causing a range of physical, chemical and potential biological harm.
Mincer received his Ph.D. in marine chemistry in 2004 from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served as a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as a faculty member at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Plastic garbage patches across thousands of miles of surface ocean receive widespread media attention, he said. But microplastics in the water column have been largely unexplored. Mincer is collaborating with FAU engineers and other researchers to use spectroscopic tools and sensors, and eventually robots that could be used to identify marine microplastics in real time to guide policymakers and inform the public.
Some nations have been better than others at managing plastic waste, so global initiatives will be needed to address the problem. “Microplastics,” he said, “have no boundaries in the ocean.”
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