Culture 3 min read

Trillions of Microplastic Particles Found in Tampa Bay

A gallon of water from Tampa Bay contains 4 microplastic particles on average, raising concerns about the extent of marine pollution in the area.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Plastic debris in the ocean varies in size from large pieces weighing hundreds of kilograms to tiny bits barely visible to the naked eye called microplastic particles.

Microplastic particles are less than five millimeters long, coming from larger plastic debris that breaks down into smaller pieces. Some microplastics are of industrial origin, designed to be tiny, like microbeads, which can quickly end up in the ocean.

As far as marine pollution goes, plastic is currently the most prevalent junk material that poses serious environmental challenges to our planet.

Tampa Bay Awash in Microplastic Particles

Found in water bottles, afloat at sea, and even falling with the rain, microplastic particles seem to be everywhere.

At first glance, the ocean waters may look pristine, enticing you to go down for a swim. But, don’t trust your naked eye.

What looks like clean water may be brimming with microscopic bits of plastic.

A team of researchers has measured the abundance of microplastic particles in Tampa Bay, the largest estuary in Florida, and the results give rise to further concerns about microplastic pollution.

Researchers from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Eckerd College conducted a 14-month study, concluding that Tampa Bay is awash in microplastics, in both water and sediment.

The team took samples of seawater from 24 collecting stations around the bay in locations like mouths of major rivers, near industrial facilities, and in coastal mangroves.

At all sampling sites, the team found four pieces of microplastic per gallon of water and more than 600 pieces of microplastic per pound of dry sediment. Extrapolating, they estimate the entire Tampa Bay estuary to contain approximately 4 billion particles of microplastics in the water and 3 trillion in surface sediments.

Originally, researchers were collecting samples of water from the bay to study plankton, but to their surprise, many tiny bits of plastic were showing up.

“We were looking at plankton, which forms the base of the marine food web. But when we put the samples underneath the microscope, we were astonished to find many brightly colored pieces of microplastic. We wanted to learn more,” said David Hastings, Principal Investigator of the study.

The danger of microplastics to marine ecosystems can not be overstated. With a similar size to plankton, microplastic particles can enter the food chain of many fish and bird species. And as if their presence alone wasn’t enough, microplastic can carry pesticides and other toxins that stick to their surface.

“These plastics will remain in the bay, the gulf and ocean for more than a lifetime, while we use most plastic bags and bottles for less than an hour,” Hasting added. “Although it is tempting to clean up the mess, it is not feasible to remove these particles from the water column or separate them out from sediments.” 

The findings of the study are published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Read More: Microplastic Pollution Reaches the Pyrenees Mountains

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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