On my first morning in Utila, the WSORC team and I went to do our weekly beach clean up. I expected a few bottles, some food wrappers, an odd article of clothing that was left, etc. But when we got there I couldn’t believe the amount of garbage strewn about the whole beach. Plastic bottles and Styrofoam were everywhere. I was a bit overwhelmed with the large items of trash, but I learned that the small stuff is what’s most important. Microplastics are almost as abundant as each sand grain (maybe an exaggeration, but it still astounded me). You could sit in one spot for three hours digging through sand to get the tiny bits of hard plastic and still not collect it all. I didn’t understand the importance of getting the microplastics until after our first clean-up. The plastics heat up the sand much more than usual, causing many problems, but especially for the local turtles and their nests. Turtles eggs are temperature dependent, meaning the warmer temperature eggs (the inner eggs) develop into females and the cooler temperature eggs (the outer eggs) develop into males. When the sand heats up too much due to microplastics, the outer eggs become females and the inner eggs often get so hot that they don’t develop at all.
A week later, after a few storms on the island, we went to do clean up again (on a different beach) and it was ten times worse. The storms had washed in even more trash. Bottles thickly lined the beach. A few days later on a boat out to a dive spot we came across another horrific sight. Massive amounts of plastics sat on top of the water, strewn out for possibly miles. Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of many marine animals and their bird counterparts. These plastics are physically harmful – they can obviously cause cuts and blockages in animal guts. However, they are chemically harmful as well. Some plastics are toxic within themselves due to monomers and additives that have carcinogenic effects and can cause problems with the endocrine system. They can also absorb other toxic pollutants that surround them. These chemicals are able to leach into the systems of the animals that consume them. Microplastics may move their way up the food chain from plankton to filter feeders and other fish and possibly even to humans.
Doing weekly beach clean ups may take a long time to get rid of all plastics, and may not ever be completely finished, but every bit counts. See what you can do in your area to reduce the amount of plastics and help your local wildlife.