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Ocean Plastics Lab takes deep dive into worries of ocean plastics

Washington — As a museum exhibit, it seems out of place — four massive cargo containers that look as if they spilled off a freighter and into downtown Washington, on a grassy mall midway between the Capitol building and the Washington monument.

Inside, though, the focus is clear and it's obvious they belong. They make up a temporary exhibit, the Ocean Plastics Lab, dedicated to the science behind growing concerns about plastic waste in the seas.

The scientists curating it hope the location, near many Smithsonian museums, will bring tourists and policymakers alike face to face with plastic in the marine environment. The mobile exhibit is funded by the German government and the European Commission, and it opened its doors June 4 in Washington for a two-week run.

OPL is designed to synthesize what we know — and don't know — about the impact of dumping an estimated 850 shipping containers worth of discarded plastic into the oceans each day.

"We want to tell people really, directly ​ from science," said Julia Schnetzer, scientific coordinator for OPL and employee of the Berlin-based German Marine Research Consortium. "All the exhibits are made by talking to the scientists."

It includes interactive exhibits and updates on the current state of research, with different shipping containers devoted to different parts of the problem, from seeing waste to detecting its impacts and finding solutions.

The goal, organizers say, is to prompt conversations about the role of plastic in daily life and how we can use polymer materials to "successfully meet both social and environmental needs."

It hopes to do that by shining light on topics that don't get so much attention.

Steve Toloken Julia Schnetzer, scientific coordinator for the Ocean Plastics Lab.

Consider that a few days before the exhibit opened June 4, newspapers worldwide carried headlines about a pilot whale that had died in Thailand after eating 17 pounds of plastic bags.

But OPL directs visitors to the other end of the marine food chain, to something without the emotional pull of an innocent beached whale: microscopic plankton and what plastic means for them.

"We start with plankton, with the smallest animals because people usually forget them, but they are very important to us," Schnetzer said. Plankton produce an estimated 50 percent of the world's oxygen and are a foundation of the food chain, she said.

"It's important to see how they are affected because plankton also eat microplastics," she said. "We need to know what is happening to them."

A long-running marine survey of plankton conducted since 1931 has been used to show the rapid spread of plastic particles in waters since 2004, the exhibit said.

A 2015 study found small particles of plastic and fiber in 25 percent of fish sold in markets in California and Indonesia. The exhibit said research into understanding what microplastics in our food means is in its infancy, but it wanted to raise the issue with the public.

OPL offers a peek into how the science is done. It notes, for example, that fulmar birds are a sort of "canary in a coal mine" for plastic pollution, since fulmars only feed in the water.

"When you look in their stomach and there's plastic in it, you know for sure it's been in the water because they would never eat something on land," Schnetzer said.

The exhibit notes the "ecologically acceptable" level of plastic in fulmar stomachs is less than 0.1 grams in 10 percent of beached fulmars, but that level is exceeded in 58 percent of the birds.

Steve Toloken The Ocean Plastics Lab works to give people some understanding of what ends up in the ocean. Hidden from view

A common misperception in debates about ocean plastic, Schnetzer said, is that all plastic floats, and therefore plastic gets more attention because it's more visible, and that other materials that have sunk escape public notice.

In reality, however, some plastics will sink. And the vast amounts of plastics that have gone into the ocean simply can't be accounted for, Schnetzer said. We can't find most of it.

"From the estimate of how much plastic is supposed to be in the ocean, on the surface there's only about 1 percent of this whole," she said. "We don't know where the other plastic is. It's called the 99 percent missing plastic mystery.

"It's estimated that 70 percent is on the sea floor, but also some is in the animals or in the water column," she said. "We actually expect that most plastic is in the sea floor."

The exhibit includes examples of animals that have been impacted, like oysters that have seen their sperm trapped in microplastic aggregate, leading to concerns that could impact fertilization.

"We don't know if the plastic itself is doing that, if the additives in the plastic are responsible for it, or maybe toxins which are absorbed by microplastics [are responsible]," she said. "Microplastics absorb toxins."

As well, the exhibit noted how tiny bits of plastic drifting in the sea can look like the small copepods that are eaten by fish called scads, which live near Easter Island. Additionally, bacteria and algae like to grow on pieces of plastic and that can make plastic look tasty to fish, Schnetzer said.

All of that has scientists and ocean advocates concerned. With rising levels of plastic consumption projected worldwide, researchers are trying to predict what that could mean in the future for marine ecosystems.

"The thing is it's a very young field," she said. "It started off maybe 20 years ago."

The two-week stay in Washington, from June 4-17, is the first time OPL has been in North America. It has support from U.S. agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

OPL launched last year with exhibitions in Turin, Italy; Paris; and at the seat of European government in Brussels. Later this summer, it will go to Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Berlin in the fall.

While the exhibit comes from Europe, where government policies toward single-use plastics have been much stricter than in the United States, the exhibit itself avoids politics.

OPL came to Washington in part to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Galway Accord building stronger scientific partnerships on ocean issues between EU and the United States. Ocean-related seminars around Washington during the week included lots of discussion about plastics.

"We don't say, 'Plastics, that's so bad,' said Schnetzer, a marine biologist. "It's not; it's a great material."

But the exhibit raises questions about its disposal.

Along those lines, the European Union government took aggressive steps on policy in late May, proposing bans on many types of single-use plastics products and an EU-wide plastic bottle recycling rate target of 90 percent. That compares with a plastic bottle recycling rate of about 30 percent in the United States.

OPL itself is agnostic on solutions but wants to highlight efforts being made.

"This is a science exhibit, so we inform and we actually try to not make positions," Schnetzer said. "We inform you and you can make your own opinion about it."

Still, curators are wondering if the location 11 blocks west of the Capitol building will prompt some policymakers to come over. Schnetzer said in Brussels, they had a lot of government officials stopping by.

"There were a lot of people from the parliament and the commission coming over, and they were actually quite aware," she said. "They were mostly really interested in talking detail."

Schnetzer admitted it can be difficult spending your work days immersed in the problems of ocean plastic waste: "It kind of depends on the day. Some days [I feel] like nothing's going to change, it's getting worse."

But she said the work brings her into contact with governments, NGOs, companies and private citizens spending time and their own money trying to help.

"And then there are some days where you kind of think, I think we can manage," she said. "You get in contact with so many projects. ... This is really awesome to see."

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» Publication Date: 08/06/2018

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