Tackling a huge problem: Tiny plastics

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Mote Marine Laboratory research programs represented on this page: Environmental Laboratory for ForensicsMarine & Freshwater Aquaculture Research Program

Stories on this page: Breaking down our plastic problem


The oceans contain more than five trillion pieces of plastic, and the total is growing. Plastic debris can entangle or be ingested by marine animals, potentially killing as many as one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles yearly.

Unfortunately, the visible impacts of plastic might be the tip of the iceberg. Plastic in the ocean resists biodegradation but breaks into tiny microplastics less than 5 millimeters in size and even tinier nanoplastics less than 100 nanometers across. The fates of those nanoplastics—and their potential impacts on ocean health—are among the most daunting mysteries in marine science today. In theory, nanoplastics are small enough to penetrate animals’ tissues, affect their cells and even cross the blood-brain barrier.

Are nanoplastics making their way into animals’ livers, lungs, brains or reproductive organs, and if so, what are the impacts? Mote Marine Laboratory scientists aim to help answer that question.

  • A new research initiative on marine micro- and nanoplastics:
    During the 2020 Florida Oceans Day celebrations at the State Capitol, with elected officials and scientists from multiple agencies and universities in attendance, Mote President & CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby launched a new initiative to investigate nano- and microplastic sources, properties and effects on marine animals and ecosystems.

    Marine nanoplastics research is in its infancy, partially because it requires advanced technology. Some of the earliest scientific evidence of nanoplastics at sea was published as recently as 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, lab studies have hinted that elevated concentrations of nanoplastics can be detrimental to tiny, water-dwelling animals and algae. However, no one knows the full scope of the problem. As an independent marine science institution, Mote has the freedom with philanthropic support to focus on emerging challenges affecting our oceans worldwide, such as plastics, that are often difficult for government agencies to tackle.

    Through cutting-edge research on nano- and microplastics, Mote scientists will independently advance and meaningfully exchange knowledge with key societal groups from research partners to government agencies and industry. Mote’s goal: ensuring that  the best available science shapes decisions about plastics—decisions that affect the oceans’ future and our own.

    While everyone should strive to use less disposable plastic, it’s unlikely to vanish entirely from modern society—it’s tightly intertwined with medicine, agriculture, sanitation, computing and other vital industries. Mote’s initiative emphasizes that “not all plastics are created equal,” and seeks to collect independent data to support better societal decisions—for example, identifying the least to the most damaging plastic types to highlight better choices when selecting plastic composition for manufacturing products.
  • Initiative goals and specifics:
    Mote scientists have an existing, high-tech contaminant research exposure system that, with community and philanthropic support, they hope to retrofit for investigating toxic micro and nanoplastic impacts on marine species such as microscopic algae, zooplankton, invertebrates like shrimp or shellfish, and fish. They want what different plastics, and chemicals associated with them, are doing to organisms at different levels of the food web—not just their survival, but their reproductive success, immune function, DNA, oxidative stress and even neurological function.

    The initiative will focus on the following goals, and more, with a flexible approach designed to work with supporters and partners on key emerging questions about plastics over multiple years:
    • Identify specific plastic polymers which are least, and most, responsible for generating nanoplastics.
    • Investigate effects of nanoplastics on ocean ecosystems, fisheries health and potential impacts on food safety.
    • Identify more effective technologies for removal of nanoplastics from drinking water and wastewater systems. About 70-90% of U.S. waterways contain plastic particles, and a lot of it comes from wastewater treatment.
    • Provide science-based recommendations to plastics manufacturers to encourage industry-wide paradigm shifts in plastics production technology.
    • Develop education and outreach opportunities to enhance public understanding of local and global impacts of plastic pollution.
    • Build national and international collaborations with scientific partners to strengthen Florida’s ability to minimize impacts of nanoplastics in our waters.
  • Mote is also studying environmental contaminants associated with microplastic samples from the ocean surface.
    Plastics attract certain contaminants such as oil, pesticides and industrial pollutants that can collect in ocean-circulation areas called gyres—which happen to be important habitats for delicate marine life such as fish eggs and larvae. This year, Mote scientists began investigating contaminants and the diversity of marine animal species in the uppermost layer of water from geographically diverse gyres thanks to samples collected by eXXpedition, an all-female exploratory team examining ocean plastic and contaminants.
  • Informing the public about plastics:
    Mote will highlight the research and public policy solutions to the critical threat of ocean plastics through the new Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA), the planned rebirth of Mote Aquarium in Nathan Benderson Park near I-75 in Sarasota County. Mote SEA will feature marine plastics interactive public exhibits for more than 700,000 visitors per year and a new Marine and Coastal Ecology STEM Teaching Lab for approximately 70,000 K-12 students per year that will include micro- and nanoplastics research experiences. (Learn more about Mote SEA our “Looking ahead" section.)

Image at top of page: Christelle Miller holds a sea surface sample containing plastics in Mote's Environmental Laboratory for Forensics. Credit: Cameron McPhail/Mote Marine Laboratory