Poisoned by Plastic

CSU faculty and students play a key role in research
to determine the future of California’s Marine Protected Areas,
including a deeper understanding of climate change’s impact on our ocean.

Too many of the plastic cups, chip bags, cigarette butts and take-out containers you see littering California’s beaches don’t stay on the sand. An estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic make their way into the world’s oceans annually, the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minuteand 80 percent of that comes directly from littering on land.

When it comes to marine debris, microplastics—tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than five millimeters—present special challenges. Due to their size, it’s difficult to filter them out of the water supply. They’re also consumed by marine life that mistake them for food and are then passed up the food chainto other creatures and to us.

“We used to think we could have garbage go into the ocean and the vast volume of water would dilute it and it’d go away,” says Sean Anderson, Ph.D., professor of Environmental Science and Resource Management at CSU Channel Islands

“There is no ‘away’ anymore. It’s going to come back and impact us.”

– Dan Reineman, assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at CSUCI

What Is Marine Debris?

In the simplest terms, marine debris is trash that ends up in the ocean. But the nature of that refuse has changed over time. It used to be that most of the items that found their way into our oceans were biodegradable, like wood, paper or cloth. Now they’re made of metals and plastics, materials that are not easily broken down.

The amount of garbage is also increasing at an alarming rate. “We’ve looked at more than 100 beaches across the California coast and every single one of them has microplastics,” says CSU Channel Islands professor Dr. Sean Anderson. “Then our CI faculty and student teams looked at sand crabs that live up and down the coast and found every single population has ingested microplastics.”

Researchers have found the presence of microplastics in the 50 marine mammals they tested, including dolphins, seals and whales. Anderson and his colleagues have even found microplastics in air and rain, from Alaska to Florida.

So where is it all coming from? The classic sources of pollution still apply: a plastic cup blows into the ocean, dries out in the sun and is then smashed into tiny pieces by waves. But newer and more insidious types of garbage are plastic microfibers—tiny plastic "hairs" shed from our clothing—and microspheres (also called microbeads), solid particles that add grit to toothpaste and cosmetics. 

As these flow down drains from sinks and washing machines and into our water treatment plants, they’re too small to be filtered out and end up in the sea (as well as in rivers and lakes). The U.S. releases eight billion plastic microbeads into aquatic ecosystems a day and an estimated 1.4 trillion microfibers are already on the floors of the world’s oceans.

Adding to the accumulation of plastic in the ocean: lost fishing gear, which accounts for 700,000 tons a year. Even this may be related to climate change, Anderson says. “When fishermen deploy nets or lobster pots the way their dads taught them, they may be leaving them in the water too long or in areas vulnerable to new storm patterns, leading to increased loss of that equipment. When we have less predictable ocean conditions, fishermen are more likely to lose their gear.”


“Microplastics can be found anywhere, especially on our beaches,” says Victoria Dickey, a graduate student studying geological oceanography at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. “Here are a piece of foam [left] and a piece of plastic thread [right] that hide between sand particles of the same size. Both of these microplastics were found on the beach in Moss Landing and are about 0.5 mm in diameter.” Photos courtesy of Victoria Dickey

What Does This Mean for California?

A 2013 Natural Resources Defense Council report found that California taxpayers were spending almost $500 million every year to clean up and keep trash out of local waterways. Polluted beaches also have a negative effect on the state’s $140 billion tourism economy.    

Aside from the financial impact, marine debris can be directly harmful to both people and animals. Once ingested by marine animals like sharks and whales, larger pieces of plastic can block their digestive tracts while microplastics can be absorbed into their circulatory systems.

Studies on the effects of microplastics on humans are ongoing, but the prevailing theory is similar to that of secondhand smoke: “Just because you consume a microplastic or breathe secondhand smoke, it doesn’t mean you’re going to die of cancer,” Anderson explains. “But when a group of people is exposed to secondhand smoke over long periods of time, they’re at a much higher risk of getting cancer.” 

Researchers in Canada estimate that every person now consumes an average of more than 74,000 particles of plastic each year. Inhalation from the surrounding air and consumption of whole seafood (like eating a raw oyster) are thought to be the primary ways microplastics get into our bodies.

Reports find that 700,000 tons of abandoned fishing gear are left in the ocean every year. Countless animals, like this sea lion, become trapped in the lost equipment.

How Is the CSU Helping?

Dr. Sean Anderson and his CSU Channel Islands colleagues started studying microplastics about six years ago as part of their examination of the health of California’s beaches. Thanks to funding from COAST [CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology], they'll now join other CSU researchers to standardize their collective methods used to analyze marine debris. “This way, we can all speak in an apples-to-apples comparison,” says Anderson. “So when we find X levels of microfibers in Santa Monica, we’ll be able to fairly compare that to what’s found in Malibu or L.A. Harbor.”

Additionally, Misty Paig-Tran, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, received funding from COAST to study how large filter feeders such as m​anta rays and whale sharks filter particles efficiently. “I use this knowledge to build bio-inspired filters for potential uses in industry—including to [sift out] microplastic particles without clogging the filters,” Dr. Paig-Tran explains.

COAST has also funded graduate and undergraduate studies on microplastics at Humboldt State, Cal State Long Beach, CSU Monterey Bay​ and San Diego State. Of note, Chelsea Rochman, Ph.D., one of the most recognized microplastic researchers today, earned her doctorate in a joint program with SDSU and University of California, Davis.

As part of a systemwide push to decrease the waste sent to landfills, the CSU enacted a policy​ that will eliminate the use and sale of all single-use plastics at its campuses by 2023. "This policy further positions the CSU as a national leader in sustainability," says the CSU's Executive Director of Strategic Sourcing and Chief Procurement Officer, Arunkumar Casuba. "Eliminating single-use plastics across our 23 campuses will rid our landfills and oceans of thousands of pounds of waste—saving marine life and further reducing our carbon footprint."

Dr. Paig-Tran, assistant professor at Cal State Fullerton, is studying how large filter feeders such as manta rays (shown feeding above) and whale sharks filter particles efficiently so similar models can be used to filter out microplastics at sewage treatment plants. Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Kajiura

A model of Dr. Paig-Tran's bioinspired manta ray filter demonstrates what she calls “ricochet separation,” a new mechanism of high-efficiency filtration that doesn’t clog. Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton graduate student Raj Divi

What You Can Do

Recent efforts to reduce the use of conspicuous plastic such as straws and grocery bags are a definite step in the right direction, but more action is needed. "You can start by supporting local ballot initiatives that push for green alternatives," says CSU Channel Islands' Sean Anderson. Bring a trash bag whenever you visit the beach and pick up litter or join a beach clean-up in your area. You can also use your buying power at stores that are trying to be part of the solution.

“California is the absolute leader on this and is making great strides,” Anderson says. “But if our elected representatives don’t hear from folks, don’t read stories about marine debris, they just think it’s a bunch of scientists complaining and don’t want to do anything. If, instead, we have a bunch of kids screaming about the fact that there are plastic straws in sea turtles’ noses, then we get movement on the issue. We need more movement.” ​