Marine microplastics researcher talks shop

Plastic that had washed ashore was the target of a past beach cleanup effort by the Surfrider Foundation on the Oregon coast. Plastic pollution and microplastics were the subject of a Science on Tap talk at Rogue Brewery on Tuesday night, given by Dorothy Horn, a Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University. (Photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation)

Presentation part of Science on Tap at Rogue Brewery

NEWPORT — Dorothy Horn, a Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University, visited Newport this week to talk to residents about her research on microplastics in the ocean. 

She shared her discoveries with locals at Rogue Ales Brewery in South Beach on Tuesday as part of the Science on Tap program, which Oregon State University organizes in partnership with Rogue Ales. 

“Most of my research is on close-to-shore coastal invertebrates, mostly crabs,” Horn said. “We, the global we, are using too many plastics and mostly single-use plastics. My research is a tiny piece of a lot of things that are going on right now, and I think it’s important to folks to pay attention to what they’re doing and try to use less, if they can.”

Microplastics, Horn said, are found all over the world in ecosystems from California to remote Alpine forests in Europe. Microplastics are smaller than one millimeter in size, and according to Horn, are abundant in near shore environments as well as surface waters offshore. These tiny plastics are a threat to marine animals in ocean ecosystems everywhere, since fish, birds, whales, sea mammals and other marine life can eat and ingest these plastics, often resulting in a variety of health problems or death for these animals.

Plastic eventually sinks, Horn said, and while some floats for a while on the surface of the ocean, researchers the world over find plastic on the floor of the deepest parts of the ocean and in the stomachs of marine organisms in every part of the ocean. She also talked about research in which microplastics were found in the sand of beaches in Alaska, the Great Lakes and the Pacific Islands, among other places, only a small fraction of the 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the ocean every year. 

“Without changing this, plastics can outweigh fish by 2050,” Horn said. “We’ve only been using plastic for 60 years. Not that long, and the fact that we can produce this much plastic in such a short amount of time is part of the problem.”

While recycling efforts increased in the United States over the last several years, recycling, Horn said, isn’t enough. 

“It doesn’t work,” she said. “We recycle less than 5 percent of all the plastics we use. A lot of it gets discarded, and most of it gets burned.” 

The answer to the inefficacy of recycling in its conventional form needs to be rethought, Horn added, and instead, anything that can be recycled should instead be refused, reduced and reused. 

“Reducing is basically refusal,” Horn said. “We have reusable straws made of steel or bamboo, you can bring your own bag to the grocery store, maybe buy things in glass instead of plastic. There are different things, but policy has to catch up with that, as well.”

All along the Oregon coast, researchers found microplastics in freshwater systems and in the tissue of marine animals. While not all plastics are bad, since plastic is used in much-needed medical equipment like catheters (glass catheters, as Horn pointed out, can break), single-use plastics are the main culprit in the plastic pollution found in marine environments all over the world. 

While microplastics are a danger to ocean life, land animals and humans, nanoplastics are also a real danger to all life, Horn said. 

“Nanoplastics can cross the blood-brain barrier,” Horn said. “So you can breathe them in, it goes into your cell structure and messes with different structures in your cell, so it does bioaccumulate. I don’t know if it magnifies or not because no one’s looked at it yet.”

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