Perils and solutions around microplastics explored

A larval squid is photographed grasping a microfibre. (Photo courtesy Anna Bolm)

NEWPORT — On Tuesday night an ecotoxicologist, recycling services education coordinator, and environmental nonprofit policy manager came together in Newport to discuss plastic pollution. The talk was hosted by the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation, as part of their campaign to reduce single-use plastics in Oregon.

After watching “Straws,” a short documentary chronicling the global fight to reduce plastic straw use, the panel discussed local plastic pollution.

Susanne Brander, an assistant professor in Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, studies the ways ingested plastics affect marine animals. One of her current projects is researching the potential effects microplastics will have on commercial fisheries.

Microplastics are plastics less than five millimeters in diameter, and while they can originate from just about anywhere in the world and travel on ocean currents, they become the problem of whatever shoreline they land upon. Besides washing up on beaches, they are consumed by fish and other marine animals and can take hundreds of years to break down.

Ingested microplastics can "reduce nutrient absorption in sea life." This can affect an organism’s stress response, ability to swim, and reproduction patterns. Funded with a grant from NOAA's Marine Debris Program, Brander is looking at the ways microplastics move through the food web. She noted a study from Europe on microfibers shed from clothing and rope where scientists estimated human seafood eaters could consume "up to 11,000 microfibers a year."

Scientists are still trying to figure out what the implications may be for human health, she said.

For Aimee Thompson, from Thompson Sanitary Service, plastic pollution is “a personal thing.” Thompson has been instrumental in implementing green programs around Newport schools. Since China stopped taking our recycling in January, 2018, she has been active in bringing awareness to the issue of plastic pollution.

Thompson noted recycling managers across Oregon have begun shifting their messages to focus on the importance of reducing over recycling. This shift is due in large part to market forces. Without a Chinese market, buyer options for recycling are drastically cut.

Thompson agreed with Charlie Plybon, Surfrider's policy manager when he said “Recycling isn't a service as much as a business.”

Plybon told the group there were multiple plastic reduction bills currently floating through Salem. He believes some of these bills were environmentally strong, while others, like a proposed statewide straws upon request bill, were becoming heavily amended to become more like “greenwash bills.”

“It's too early for a statewide straw bill,” Plybon said, noting the fast food and plastics industry lobbying behind the bill. In its current form, the bill would make straws at restaurants available only upon request. If a city or town, he added, wanted to further regulate straws through more comprehensive plastic policies, they would be unable to.

One man told the story of recycling as a child. It was part of his upbringing. It “felt like a gut punch” when he realized as a young person that his recycling was going abroad, to “sit and rot in a landfill.”

Plybon sees the microplastics issue as largely an economic one. If it's cheaper for plastics producers to create single-use plastics than reusables, he said, then they will continue to do so.

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