Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic escape into the ocean. That’s equivalent to two Empire State Buildings entering the sea each month. If the current trend continues, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050.
Most of our understanding of these microplastics, defined as small pieces less than 5-millimeters long — come from large garbage patches floating at the surface, which accounts for just 1 to 2 percent plastic pollution invading the sea. So, where is the rest of it going; What about plastic in the middle or deepest parts of the ocean? That’s the work of Tracy Mincer, an oceanographer at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Mincer grew up in central Alaska, having moved there as a kid from Indiana. He was always captivated by nature, and particularly enjoyed watching the salmon runs in the summer and fall. “I was amazed by how such an incredible migration could happen, all so exquisitely timed— still amazes me to this day,” he says. Yet, it wasn’t until his early twenties that he started spending time around the ocean, while working as a deckhand on a fishing boat. “I was fascinated and have never really spent much time away from the ocean ever since.” Later, he received his Ph.D. in marine chemistry in 2004 from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Now, Mincer is on a mission to understand the fate of plastics in the ocean, how they interact with their environment, and how they impact human health, especially as they get smaller and smaller. “Where do they go? You think that’d be an easy question but its not,” he says. In a recent study, Mincer found that tiny plastics get entangled with “marine snow”, the organic material at the surface comprised of dead plankton, shell fragments and feces. As the marine snow sinks to the sea floor, it brings the microplastics that gets ingested by marine life. Microplastics have been found in the digestive tracts of more than 100 different animals.
One of his current projects is using an artificial beach set up with a motor to create waves to look at the impact of wave action on plastic. Based on preliminary work, big pieces of plastic get ground down really fast into small plastics and then those small plastics head back into the ocean from things like storm events. While that sounds bad, it means that “beach clean-ups are one of best things people can do to help the environment,” he says. “Anything you can do to keep plastic from going in the ocean is terrific.” He’s also collaborating with engineers to eventually develop ship sensors and robots to collect information real-time on the water. The practical application of that would be to measure effluent from certain big industry to make sure plastic is not going into watershed.
With international attention to this problem, Mincer is hopeful about solutions, especially with “humanity, and our ability to innovate and solve problems.”
Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Vero Beach Portfolio magazine.