Plastic pollution makes a mess of the oceans

If you were to gather up all the plastic trash thrown into the ocean each year, it would weigh as much as 800 Eiffel Towers.

That’s a lot of waste.

Researchers at the FIU Institute of Environment are working to understand where that waste comes from and what types of plastics are polluting our oceans and killing marine life.

Seakeepers net

The problem varies from continent to continent. Data from our S.A.R.A.H. Initiative shows most microplastics in waters off Central America come from polypropylene found in packaging materials, clothing, bottlecaps or straws. In the Florida Straits, polyethylene mostly found in frozen food trays and water bottles is the leading culprit. 

Piero Gardinali, director of the institute’s Freshwater Resources Division, and Ph.D. student Steven Landeweer lead the effort to analyze plastic collected from this project. In 2019, Gardinali also mentored undergraduate students with the institute’s Coastal Ecosystems REU program who developed a unique method to study plastics in the oceans.

plastic in the mangroves

Plastics are also invading mangrove ecosystems that among other things protect us from flooding and sea level rise. More than 96 percent of debris found mixed in with mangroves were plastic, according to research conducted by Ph.D. student Melinda Paduani. Surprisingly, the further away she was from the shoreline, the more debris she found in the mangroves, which was influenced by the amount of vegetation in the area.

Understanding the plastics problem is only part of the solution. Working with policymakers to effect change is the other, said Michael Ross, a researcher in the institute and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment. 

“While I don’t think our plastics problem can be solved by voluntary actions alone, they can help build public support necessary to push legislation,” he said.

Here are some ways people can do their part to reduce plastic consumption.