GALVESTON, Texas — Between every new wave of salt water crashing onto the beach, plastic is either carried out or carried in. For the Turtle Island Restoration Network, education is key in reducing the amount of plastic we use—and it starts with the kids.
“We do a ton of outreach in the community and we go to the schools a lot,” said Joanie Steinhaus, program director for the Gulf of Mexico TIRN chapter. “They’re realizing at a young age that they’re impacting. You talk about sea turtles and that plastic bag floating in the ocean looking like food and that child processes that, and they want to take action to correct it.”
That’s precisely what kids with the local cub scouts are learning during their outing with TIRN: microplastics.
“Microplastics are any piece of plastic smaller than five centimeters,” said Theresa Morris, Gulf Program Coordinator. “It’s usually the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, but you also have primary microplastics which are manufactured pieces of plastics that are created to be small."
Those are plastics such as microbeads commonly found in facewash and other products, or other small plastics called “nurdles,” which look like the tiny beans found in stuffed animals like Beanie Babies.
“Nurdles are manufactured small pieces of plastic that are used to be melted down into larger items,” Morris said. “Anything that you have, like this (plastic water bottle), usually comes from some nurdles that have been melted down and shaped and formed into this larger item.”
But the problem, according to Morris, is the United States produces about 60 billion nurdles a year, and they often end up in our environment.
“Between the manufacturing process, transportation, there are many avenues for them to go into the environment,” Morris said. “We’re finding them on our beaches. We’re finding them worldwide.”
Because these plastics are so small, they tend to be lightweight, resulting in the pieces being picked up by the wind or water, resulting in the plastic traveling many miles.
“The microplastics also look like small pieces of food for many organisms, animals, and invertebrates that live in our ecosystem,” Morris said. “They look a lot like their food sources.”
The state of Texas receives the most marine debris out of any of the Gulf states, per the TIRN. Our part of the state also has a very large watershed, so as a lot of these plastics that are thrown into waterways north of us, it begins to break down as it travels south.
“The biggest thing we can do to help reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment is to stop using plastic items,” Morris said. “Try to reduce the amount of plastics you do uses as much as possible.”
TIRN advises getting rid of single-use plastics, such as plastic grocery bags. Try using a reusable tote or grocery bag. Plastic straws are also another plastic that can be replaced with a stainless steel straw or a silicone one.
But it’s also more than ridding our use of plastic. The impact of plastics in the water also affects what we eat.
“If the fish are out there eating these nurdles, and these nurdles are covered in chemicals or bacteria that are not good for them, it’s going to affect the fish but then also if we eat the fish, it’s going to affect us as well,” Morris said.
As KHOU 11 reported last October, a 2017 study showed 94 percent of tap water in the United States has microfibers in it. Researchers said that adds up to more than 13,000 pieces and up to 68,000 pieces of consumed microplastics a year.
At the beach, Morris, Steinhaus and the team have shown a group of elementary school-aged students how to spot plastics and other trash in the environment from entangled balloons in the seaweed to microplastics in the sand, to countless cigarette butts thrown on the ground. Excited to start their scavenger hunt, the kids and parents break off into groups as they search for plastics.
“We found this tennis rack thing, and we also found a net, a lemon net, and we also found Texans ball,” said Ibrahim Ahmed, a third grader, showing off the contents of his debris bag. “I learned that there are things out there in the ocean, in our environment, that some people just don’t care about, and they just litter everywhere. All these creatures—some of them are in danger and some of them aren’t, but we should still keep them safe in their environment.”
“We learned that there are a lot of important things in the ocean, and we want to respect those things and the environment,” said third-grader Yusuf Gabr.
“You don’t get that attitude from kids, that like, 'I don’t want to be told what to do.' Oddly enough, they’re the ones that want to make the change,” Morris said. “They want to help save the animals and they want to make sure that when they go play in the playground they’re not tripping in trash.”
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
There are several ways to help reduce the number of plastics found in the landfill and in our waters.
- Say “no” to balloons: Balloons are typically the first thing people buy when celebrating just about any event. But when they’re released, blown away, popped, or deflated, they fall back to Earth, usually in the ocean, and end up marine debris. This then traps, entangles, and suffocates thousands of animals every year—from birds to our sea turtles, and other organisms. Take the Turtle Island Restoration Network’s pledge here.
- The “fight against straws”: No, they’re not taking away your straws. They’re simply asking that you consider alternatives. Americans use more than 390 million straws every day, per TIRN, and we usually use straws for a short period of time. TIRN says straws take 200 to 500 years to decompose, and they’re a huge threat to wildlife. Plus, they’re not exactly easy to recycle. TIRN is inviting all businesses and individuals to be part of their “The Final Straw” campaign, encouraging local restaurants, bars, and others to provide straws on request (reusable or paper straws). TIRN is also available to help with a successful transition. Did you know the city council and the city of Galveston unanimously passed a resolution on straws? It actually started March 1 and encourages businesses to offer straws made of paper, plant fiber, or other materials that are biodegradable (not plastic). A couple of restaurants have actually already made their pledge, and you can, too. If you own a business and want to participate, click here. Everyone else can click here to take their pledge against plastic straws.
- Bring the Bag: TIRN and Surfrider Galveston have teamed up to create their “Bring the Bag” campaign in hopes it’ll help the city of Galveston reduce and eliminate single-use plastic bags. TIRN says each person uses 500 plastic bags or more per year, and a lot of them end up floating in our waters, floating in the air during a windy day, and littering our beach. When they’re in the oceans, sea turtles often confuse plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. Thinking they’ve consumed actual food, the sea turtle can be harmed or even killed by the plastic. This campaign asks you to bring your own reusable grocery bags when shopping. Want to join the campaign? Click here to find out how to take part in their 30-day challenge.
- Beach Cleanups: The Turtle Island Restoration Network hosts beach cleanups for small groups around Galveston Island. They’re typically held Monday to Friday, but they have some weekend availability as well. You’ll be given instruction on what to look for, what data to fill out on cards and other guidelines. After the group wraps up, they’ll host a meeting either at the TIRN office or at Galveston Island Brewing. Interested? Register here.
- Microplastics and You: Still confused about microplastics? You can read more about them by clicking here, and you’ll be directed to TIRN’s website with more information on their research.
- Follow them on Social Media: The Turtle Island Restoration Network is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.