The Plastic Problem: Puzzling out Marine Debris Prevention | Ohio Sea Grant

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The Plastic Problem: Puzzling out Marine Debris Prevention

9:00 am, Fri December 29, 2017 – Ohio Sea Grant programs work to stop marine debris before it gets to Lake Erie beaches

Your pop and water bottles. The straw in your drink. The bags at the end of the checkout line. Plastic is everywhere. It’s a common and convenient part of our everyday lives. But the very properties that make plastics useful – durability and versatility – also make them a concern.

“Plastics never disappear. They just get smaller and smaller until we can no longer see them,” said Ohio Sea Grant Extension Educator Jill Bartolotta.

“It’s still just as harmful, or even more harmful, for wildlife and humans because when it gets to those small pieces, that’s when we start ingesting it through food, air or water. We know these microplastics and nanoplastics are in animals – in fish and in birds, and probably in people. We just don’t know all the ways it affects our bodies yet.”

Cigarettes in hands

Cigarettes and other smoking related materials, such as plastic cigar tips, are the most common items found on Ohio beaches.

Plastics and other human-made materials that end up in the water or on the edge of a body of water are classified as marine debris.

“Marine debris could be plastic, metal, paper, textile, fishing gear – anything from microplastics to abandoned and derelict vessels. It’s found across the globe,” said Sarah Lowe, Great Lakes regional coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. “The name can cause a little bit of confusion, but it is good to recognize that it is a global problem, not just an ocean issue. It is found in the Great Lakes as well.”

Ohio Sea Grant is bringing the problem of marine debris in Lake Erie to the forefront of the public’s mind through research, education and outreach efforts, focusing on the reasons why debris gets into the lake and how to prevent it in the first place.

It’s impossible to calculate the total amount of marine debris in the environment. Alliance for the Great Lakes reported 46.3 tons of marine debris collected in Great Lakes states during beach clean ups in 2015, and more than a third of that was collected in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which only border Lake Erie. About one-third of the total population of the Great Lakes basin lives within the Lake Erie watershed. That means there’s a lot of debris that finds its way into the lake, some of which washes up on shore. A startling 93 percent of debris on Lake Erie beaches is plastic.

One simple way to help: pick up that trash. Beach clean-ups serve the two-fold purpose of removing debris and making a big impression on those who pick it up.

In September, Bartolotta accompanied over 100 students from Stow-Munroe Falls High School in Stow, Ohio as they collected about 10 pounds of trash during a 15 minute clean up along a half-mile stretch of beach in Fairport Harbor. The top item by far was small pieces of plastic – 750 pieces – followed by 195 cigarette butts and 100 plastic cigar tips. Other common types of trash were bottle caps and straws; all of these show up frequently on beaches worldwide, Bartolotta said.

What’s just as important as the amount of debris removed is the lasting impact the experience left on those who participated. A post-event survey showed that roughly two-thirds of the students said they changed their everyday actions to reduce marine debris in the environment.

“It hits home a little more when you’re actually out there on this little stretch of sand picking up tiny pieces of Styrofoam,” Bartolotta said.

Ohio Sea Grant extension educators are trained to lead beach clean-ups and do so when requested, but simply picking up the trash doesn’t address the heart of the problem, she said. “It’s incredibly time consuming. You clean a beach one day and it’s filthy again the next day. We’re trying to take a step back and say, ‘How do we stop using these products in the first place?’”

Fortunately, Ohio Sea Grant isn’t alone in this mission. At the request of the City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Bartolotta and Ohio Sea Grant Extension Educator Scott Hardy helped lead a study identifying barriers to reducing consumption of single-use plastic water bottles, grocery bags and cigar tips. Sea Grant released a report on the study in March 2017, available at

“We were really trying to figure out why people use single-use plastics so much when we’ve had reusable alternatives for so long,” Bartolotta said. “For example, reusable bags have been out forever, and it seems like every time you go to an event, you get one. But we see so many people who don’t use those bags when they go to the grocery store.”

Bartolotta and Hardy found that the top reason people don’t use those bags is simple; they forget. “They don’t want to go home or back to the car to get them, and single-use plastic or paper bags are readily available,” Bartolotta said. “They’re there and free. It’s just more convenient to get that bag in the store.”

“Marine debris is a critical educational component of that program because boaters already have a vested interest in the health of the water,”
Sarah Orlando

Cuyahoga County Council is considering an ordinance that would impose a 10-cent fee on carryout bags (paper or plastic) beginning July 1, the proceeds of which would pay for environmental remediation within the county and for purchase or reimbursement of reusable bags.

Bartolotta said that the results of the research she and Hardy conducted showed public support for a fee of that nature, with 36% supporting both a ban on plastic bags and a fee and another 23% supporting a fee only. Whether or not the bag fee passes, Bartolotta and Hardy are planning a follow-up project, working with grocery stores in Cuyahoga to test messages reminding shoppers to bring reusable bags and see which strategies are most effective.

A similar program may target tourists at Put-In-Bay, Bartolotta and Ohio Sea Grant Education and Outreach Coordinator Sue Bixler hope. Visitors would see or hear messages about marine debris during transportation to and from the island and at popular attractions, including a “skip the straw” campaign at local restaurants. Then Bartolotta and Bixler would assess whether those messages affect people’s behavior long-term.

Some of those messages may be ones created through another Ohio Sea Grant effort: the Ohio Marine Debris Challenge. The video PSA contest was launched in 2016 in cooperation with NOAA Marine Debris and U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur’s office. The first year, only students in Kaptur’s 9th Congressional District could participate, but it has since been expanded to include all students in grades 9-12 in the Lake Erie region of Ohio.

“The kids are very excited and very positive,” said Bixler, who coordinates the contest for Ohio Sea Grant. “It’s hands-on. They’re actually out in the field making the video and there’s a social science and outreach aspect as they share it with other people.”

The students work individually or in groups of up to 10 to create a public service announcement video up to 1 minute long explaining what marine debris is its impacts on the environment and what people can do to prevent marine debris and be part of the solution. This year’s deadline for submissions is March 16, 2018. First, second and third place winners receive a single day entry to Cedar Point’s Physics, Math and Science Week in May 2018, and first place winners receive a day field trip to Stone Laboratory. More details are available at

Ohio Clean Marinas and Clean Boaters Program Manager Sarah Orlando has the same aim of stopping debris at its source.

“Marine debris is a critical educational component of that program because boaters already have a vested interest in the health of the water,” Orlando said.

Outreach materials and programming for Ohio Clean Marina and Clean Boaters Programs focus on preparation – bringing trash bags and reusable water bottles along on boating trips. She also provides ample opportunities for recycling by offering monofilament fishing line recycling receptacles and recycling of plastic shrink-wrap used to protect boats during the winter.

NOAA Marine Debris Great Lakes Regional Coordinator Sarah Lowe leads a beach clean-up at East Harbor State Park as part of Stone Laboratory’s 2017 Water and Wildlife Training for Educator’s class.

In 2016, more than 4,000 pounds of boat shrink-wrap was recycled from Ohio marinas through Ohio Sea Grant’s shrink-wrap recycling program. It’s getting harder to find buyers for used shrink wrap, so Orlando is making sure to spread the word that shrink wrap can be used for more than one season if cut carefully or repurposed as a tarp.

In total Ohio Sea Grant programming, outreach events and displays helped educate more than 185,000 people on the impacts and prevention of marine debris. Humans are the source of the problem, and we have to be the solution.

“Ohio Sea Grant’s goal is for the citizens of the Ohio Lake Erie watershed to become engaged, participatory stakeholders in reducing marine debris in our lake,” Orlando said.

“We don’t just want to declare that it’s an issue. We want to offer solutions for that issue, whether that’s through fishing line recycling containers or through research into understanding human behavior and how we can enable behavior change. Ultimately, the end goal is to reduce marine debris in Lake Erie.”

ARTICLE TITLE: The Plastic Problem: Puzzling out Marine Debris Prevention PUBLISHED: 9:00 am, Fri December 29, 2017 | MODIFIED: 4:33 pm, Fri March 2, 2018
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Lisa Aurand Rice
Authored By: Lisa Aurand Rice
Communication and Marketing Specialist, Ohio Sea Grant College Program

Communications and Marketing Specialist Lisa Rice promotes Stone Lab’s summer courses and is the face behind the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab social media accounts.