Turtle Power & Microplastics

On this fine Memorial Day I decided to do a little more marine debris removal from the beach. While swimming or working at this particular beach on the north side of the island, sea turtles are a common sight mere feet from the water’s edge. They’re somewhat timid and won’t typically swim toward you. They can be seen coming to the surface for air and taking a quick peek at their surroundings. If there are any human occupants on the beach, they do their best to avoid you. However, that was not the case on this gorgeous afternoon._DSC0001

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This particular turtle decided that I was of little threat and proceeded to depart the safety of the water and shuffle its hefty body toward me. I was much closer to the turtle at first, but carefully went back to my ATV to get my camera, where I took these pictures.

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I was certain that upon seeing me waddle around the beach in a peculiar manner (collecting plastic and throwing it into buckets), the turtle would immediately return to the water. Quite the opposite happened. After the turtle looked at me, it actually pivoted its body directly toward where I was sitting and continued to pull its way onto land, inching closer in my direction.

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Eventually I decided to abandon my immediate cleanup efforts in the general proximity of the turtle to avoid stressing it out (although ironically, I was probably more stressed than the turtle, as it quickly fell asleep).

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For some reason I found myself covered in ink during this cleanup. The culprit was an inkjet printer cartridge, still squirting out ink.

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After cleaning up the larger pieces of debris, I wanted to focus on the small plastic microfragments mixed into the sand. The photo above appears to be a relatively clean beach. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that it’s peppered with countless pieces of colorful plastic–some so small that they aren’t even distinguishable from the small coral fragments and sand.

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The photo above contains small coral fragments, sand, bird feathers, and plastic. It’s difficult to estimate the amount of plastic in just this small segment, but I tried to collect some handful-sized samples in an area of about one square meter.

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The easiest way to separate plastic from sand is by simply throwing a handful of it in a bucket of water. The plastic is less dense than the sand and coral and will float at the top while the rest of the mass sinks. Mixing and agitating the water helps separate any plastic and sand that might be attached to each other.

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After fifteen or twenty handfuls, the floating plastic layer begins to thicken, and you can begin removing the fragments with some sort of strainer. I found this red strainer (I don’t know what it really is) on the beach about five minutes before attempting this procedure.

With the exception of fishing net fragments and ropes, most large plastic fragments that wind up on the beach are an inconvenience and an eyesore. Certainly many of them can become an entrapment hazard or ingested by seabirds and other larger animals. However, microplastics such as these can very easily become consumed by smaller fish and enter the food web. The small petroleum-based plastics also attract toxic synthetic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that can biomagnify up the food chain. Removing the larger fragments of plastic from the beaches prevent them from breaking down into hundreds or possibly thousands of smaller pieces. However, I believe the most difficult challenge with tackling the issue of marine debris is how to remove/mitigate/prevent microplastics.

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I’m bottling this sample of plastic fragments as a request from a friend back on the mainland. (If you’re also interested in receiving a bottle, please send me an email.) 

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This cleanup is dedicated to all of the donors and supporters that helped me get to Midway. I wouldn’t be here without you!

Questions or comments? Email me at james (at) jamesweaver.net