Oceans of Plastic

Originally posted on 2/8/2014 on plastictides.wordpress.com


At least once a week a news report will mention the occurrence of plastic waste in our oceans, such as the LEGO pieces washing up on Cornish beaches (BBC News). Beaches might be end-points for larger plastic waste, but what about those that are trapped by ocean currents and circulating the globe? What about the plastic we can’t see, or need the aid of microscope count?

Cutlass on a beach (C) Tracey Williams

A recent study conducted by research from the University of Cadiz, Spain, and the University of Western Australia published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences set out to describe the levels of  plastic pollution around the globe. This study looks as 3,070 samples which have been collected worldwide, including previously published data as well data collected as part of the 2010 Malaspina Science Expedition.

Researchers detected plastics in 88% of samples of the ocean surface during the Malaspina Expedition in 2010 and it demonstrates that the five accumulation gyres in the oceanic surface circulation match with trends of plastics debris. The concentration of plastics ranged over 4 orders of magnitude in the open ocean, matching areas of convergence and divergence in the ocean. They estimated tat the amount of plastic in surfaces waters of the open ocean was between 7,000 and 35,000 tons.

What is interesting about the study is that, yes they identified plastics in the 5 gyres (check out the NGO with the same name), but since the 1980s we have seen plastic production quadruple, and we would think that with all of the wave and wind action, a lot more microplastics would be floating at the sea surface. In reality, a whole lot more particle were predicated than what were actually found.

There appears to be 5 distinct areas where plastic accumulates :

  • Pacific Ocean: to the west of the United states (AKA the North Pacific Central Gyre-add link)
  • Pacific Ocean: to the west of South America
  • Atlantic Ocean: between USA and Africa
  • Atlantic Ocean: to the East of southern Africa
  • Indian Ocean: to the west of Southern Africa
Originally from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140715-ocean-plastic-debris-trash-pacific-garbage-patch/?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_us_dr_c1 Cozar

(c) Cozar, University of Cadiz, Spain


Although these areas tend to receive the most research, there are other areas of the ocean are likely to have plastics as well. From my own research we are finding microplastics throughout the Irish marine and coastal environment (watch this space – publication coming soon).

Nearly 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year, worldwide we do our best to recycle and reuse a large quantity of this, but it has been estimated about 10% (by mass) will eventually find its way into the marine environment. Once there is can be transported on currents, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces (processes include wave action and UV degradation). Microplastics are also input directly through the use of cosmetics, air blasting and loss of pre-production pellets at sea.

 It’s not just these floating garbage patches that accumulate plastics, they only appear to account for 1 percent of what is expected to be found. So where could this plastic have gone? Plastics could end up sinking to the sea floor, washing up on beaches, or interacting with marine biota (take a look at my previous posts about this). If ingestion is the case, and chemical effects are associated with microplastics, this could have wide-ranging environmental impact, because so many different species living on the earth live in or eat from the oceans. It might even find its way onto our plates.

I guess the step forward is to continue looking for the sources and sinks of microplastics in the marine environment, to begin to understand their pathways around the globe and their eventual fate in the marine environment, be it interacting with marine organisms of burying deep in sediment.

What is known is that microplastics are certainly ubiquitous in the marine environment, and they will be there for many decades and centuries to come.

Published  by Amy Lusher


 If you want to read the full articles from PNAS you can access it here. I have copied the abstract below:

There is a rising concern regarding the accumulation of floating plastic debris in the open ocean. However, the magnitude and the fate of this pollution are still open questions. Using data from the Malaspina 2010 circumnavigation, regional surveys, and previously published reports, we show a worldwide distribution of plastic on the surface of the open ocean, mostly accumulating in the convergence zones of each of the five subtropical gyres with comparable density. However, the global load of plastic on the open ocean surface was estimated to be on the order of tens of thousands of tons, far less than expected. Our observations of the size distribution of floating plastic debris point at important size-selective sinks removing millimeter-sized fragments of floating plastic on a large scale. This sink may involve a combination of fast nano-fragmentation of the microplastic into particles of microns or smaller, their transference to the ocean interior by food webs and ballasting processes, and processes yet to be discovered. Resolving the fate of the missing plastic debris is of fundamental importance to determine the nature and significance of the impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Authors: Andrés Cózar, Fidel Echevarría, Juan I. González-Gordillo, Xabier Irigoien, Bárbara Úbeda, Santiago Hernández-León, Álvaro Palma, Sandra Navarro, Juan García-de-Lomas, Andrea Ruiz, María L. Fernández-de-Puelles, and Carlos M. Duarte. Plastic debris in the open oceanPNAS, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314705111


Media Coverage: Irish Times 2013

Originally posted on 16/12/2013 on plastictides.wordpress.com


I was asked to write short piece about my research in relation to Christmas. It was to be part of the Irish Independent’s Christmas supplement, called ‘Science of Christmas’ in partnership with the Irish Research Council. So I put together a little story about how Santa was trying to minimise the impact of Christmas on planet Earth. The piece was published on 11/12/13, complete with a cheesy Christmas picture. You can find the full text below.

– Does Santa care about planet Earth?

His annual trip around the world gives Santa a great view of any changes on planet earth. Over the years, one of the things he notices is the growing amount of plastic in the sea.

Plastics have only been around since the early 1990s with the introduction of Bakelite in 1970 while mass production began in the 1040s. Now, the use of plastic for packing and in industry is widespread.

Even though many plastic items are recycled, about 10% of what is produced will end up in the ocean where it can accumulate and persist for hundreds of years.

This accumulation in the marine environment I a worrying trend and one that is being studied by scientists internationally.

Plastics build up on shorelines, in seawater and on the sea bed. Along with the unsightly impact, they also affect the environment in a number of ways. Marine animals can become entangled in them. Sea birds, marine mammals and sea turtles can swallow plastics items, both accidentally and mistakenly targeting them for food items. Ingestion can lead to malnutrition- because it can cause a blockage and decrease the nutritional intake- starvation and sometimes death.

It is not only the large items of plastic that cause problems; over time, larger plastic break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it easier for smaller organisms to mistake them for items of prey or accidentally eat them. These microplastics are less than 5mm in size- about the size of half a grain of rice- and fish, invertebrates, such as mussels and prawns, as well as sea bird have been found to ingest them. By the way, polyester and acrylic fibres can also separate from clothes during washing and eventually find their way into the sea, while certain cosmetic products contain microplastic scrubbers. These also contribute to the accumulation of microplastics.

The effect of ingestion of microplastics still needs to be fully understood, but it has been suggested that they can cause the same damage as larger items of debris.

I am currently involved in research at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), where I am investigating the effect of microplastics on the marine environment in the North Atlantic and Irish waters. I have spent a lot of time on the Marine Institute’s research vessel, the R.V. Celtic Explorer, to collect water and biological samples. On these trips, balloon yoga mats, washing up gloves and bottles are among the many plastic items you see bobbing around on the sea.

Wisely, Santa decided it was time to do his best to minimise the impact of Christmas on the marine environment. He told his elves to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in his workshop, so that he leaves less unnecessary and potentially damaging packaging in home.

That, in turn, reduces the amount of rubbish to be disposed of at the end of the Christmas period. The less plastic packaging use, the less that can end up in the sea. Plastic is a convenient and widely use produced and it is impossible to eliminate it completely, however by reducing its use, Santa is doing his bit to help preserve the environment for future generations

Originally written for  http://www.independent.ie/

 Published by Amy Lusher

PhD Sample Collection



“Are you filtering sea water again?!?!”

…That is my usual greeting from crew members when I board the research vessel to carry out sample collection. Most of my data collection is carried out at sea, and I (Amy) have just returned for another sample collection in the North Atlantic on the R.V. Celtic Explorer, Ireland’s seagoing research vessel. I’ve spent the first two months of 2014 adding a few more sampling locations for one of my PhD chapters. I am just back from a equipment trial out near the porcupine bank in the North Atlantic. In January I collected data alongside a group of scientists on Cetaceans on the Frontier 5 (http://www.cotf5.blogspot.ie).   

As part of my PhD research I have been collecting water samples onboard the RV Celtic Explorer as she undertakes different research cruises in the Irish offshore waters. I have been looking at the distribution and fate of microplastics in the North Atlantic and Irish waters. Microplastics are generally buoyant and found in the top few meters of water, if they are fouled by organisms they can sink to the sea floor, however the purpose of this work focuses on the sub-surface water. Samples have been collected during 8 research cruises and I have filtered over one million litres of water (this is about the amount of water required to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool).

I won’t look at the samples until I return to shore, this way I can control the laboratory conditions.

From the samples I have collected during previous cruises, fibres are the most common type of plastic identified. The results will be used to compile a picture of microplastics in the marine environment. It is hard to say the source of the microplastics at the moment, however we will be running mass spectroscopy to work out the chemical structure of the microplastics polymers.

I have written a couple of other blog posts during previous cruises in 2013:

R.V. Celtic Explorer, Amy’s floating office
 Published by Amy Lusher



Between January 12th and 15th, 2014 the “International Workshop on Fate and Impact of Microplastics in Marine Ecosystems” took place in Plouzane, France.

There were a number of different themes at the conference related to microplastics in the marine environment including: distribution of microplastics, interactions with marine organisms, impacts on marine organisms and microplastics as a vector for biological and chemical pollutants.

There were over 30 oral presentation and over 60 posters presented by participants. The first day of the conference. Over the three days there were talks, posters, visits from local school children and plenty of delicious french food, and wine.

The workshop was attended by a diverse group of researchers, including undergraduate, masters students, PhD students, senior researchers and professors, from all around the world.


Day one of the conference was under the theme “Microplastics in the marine environment”

Researchers presented studies on 1) Occurrence and sources, 2) Microplastics ingestion by marine biota, 3) Methods development and validation, 4) Cooperation with citizens and NGOs

Take home messages:

  • Plastic is abundant and widespread all around the world
  • there are many different sources of microplastics, rivers act as an important transport pathway
  • There is a link between the amount of plastic found in the environment and the amount of plastic found in biota (Natalie Welden, research in the Clyde, Scotland)
  • New methods were proposed, but we need harmonisation and precautions must be taken when extrapolating or comparing field data on environmental contamination by microplastics.
  • Cooperation with citizens and NGOs is important to raise awareness.


Day two focused on “Impacts of microplastics on the marine life”

Take home messages

  • Microplastics can be ingested by several marine organisms and lead to deleterious effects.
  • All animals exposed to microplastics appear to ingest/absorb/take in microplastics
  • Controlled lab exposures are required to evaluate these mechanisms and the biological effects of microplastics.
  • Microplastics may impact the energy levels of some organisms, for example Arenicola marina.
  • Trophic transfer may occur in the food chain.

“Microplastics as vectors for biological and chemical contaminants”




Take home messages:

  • Plasticisers, waterborne pollutants and microorganisms can adhere to microplastics
  • Adsorption / desorption rates  onto microplastics are pollutant and polymer dependent.
  • Microplastics may modify the bioavailability, the bioaccumulation and the toxicity of waterborne pollutants in marine organisms
  • microorganisms can colonize plastic

Click here for the Book of Abstracts

Find out more about the conference hereImage

Group picture of the attendees of Micro 2014, in Plouzane, France.