See here for part one of this article series, a tribute to the life of Dr. Susan Williams.
“Damn, there are so many.” A lump in my throat made these words difficult to say, and my eyes teared up a bit as I stared through a stereoscope at hundreds of plastic fibers. The tiny, twirling, transparent things were almost too many to count and it was hard to believe that they all came from the tissue of marine snails.
“Are you sure they’re not spirochetes?”, I asked my professor, a marine plankton specialist. He shook his head, “No, these are not living things. It’s definitely plastic.”
That weekend was rough. It was less than a month after Susan had passed and we went back to her lab in Bodega Bay to process the samples we collected together during her very last field expedition. The lab work was pretty intense too: we spent ten hours screening for microplastics in samples we took from seawater, sand, seaweed and snails. But the heaviest, hardest part of it all was to find what we were looking for.
We found microplastics in all of our samples. The ones from seawater and sand had some, but not a lot of plastics. But that’s not good news. As waves come and go, the microplastics are constantly being washed away from the rocky shore, so it’s hard to catch a lot in a single collection. The living organisms, though, they’re holding on to it. For every gram of algae there were on average 2 to 8 pieces of plastics. In the snails we found up to 16 microplastics per gram. To put it in perspective, one-gram weighs about the same as a stick of gum, and snails weigh around three grams without the shell.
Next time you go tide pooling, if you look out for marine snails you’ll find out that there are thousands of them on the shoreline. These little guys are usually clumped together trying to avoid being eaten by crabs, sea stars, and birds, while munching on seaweed. As microplastics can’t be digested, they accumulate inside the organisms and move from prey to predators in the marine food web.
Photo credits (left to right): Shutterstock, Gabriel NG, G R Mottez
That’s the microplastics karma web right there: you inherit the plastics from your last meal and pass it on when you become someone’s dinner. As you go up on the food web, plastics accumulate, and in each successive predator, plastics can be found in higher concentrations. Humans, as top predators, are also on the top of the pile of microplastics tower, so we get quite a view of the plastics kingdom we created for ourselves. We ingest about a credit card worth of microplastics a week in the food we eat. Karma.
Now, what? My colleagues and I finished and published the project we started with Susan. That felt good, but not enough. The plastic is still there, inside the snails of Bodega Bay and in thousands of species all over the world. I’m still doing my laundry and shedding millions of fibers into the watersheds. Less than 10% of plastics are recycled and the U.S. is going through a recycling crisis. Also, Susan’s voice hasn’t let me go yet. I hear her like an embarrassed Simba heard Mufasa saying he needs to get it together and show up for his community.
To be completely honest with you, I don’t think there will be a scene where I come back to claim my kingdom and save it from the hyenas or the microplastics. In real life, I think we’re both the good and the bad guys (when it comes to the environment, definitely the bad guys). All I can tell you is about this gradual change in my behavior. Since Susan and the microplastics project, the time that I spend grocery shopping has increased. Not because I’m buying more, on the contrary, for every single product I go through a long mental checklist: Do I need it? Can I buy the same thing not wrapped in plastic? Can I deal with not getting what I want to avoid creating plastic waste? And so on.
It’s like now I actually see plastics for what they are: a material incredibly costly to produce and made to last forever, that we throw away after a single use. And there’s no real “away” either, as we’ve learned from the snails in Bodega Bay and the whales starving to death because their gut is covered in plastic debris.
Is personal accountability enough? I don’t think so. If 1,500 plastic bottles are used in the U.S. every second, it is because companies like Coca-Cola are putting more than 100 billion of them in the market every year. Companies have way more power than me bringing my own mug to the coffee shop. So, redistributing this power by supporting companies that consider sustainable solutions might be more effective. Collective action can also be powerful and has led to changes in legislation such as bans of plastic straws and bags.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned from Susan is that good science and successful ocean conservation rely on personal connections. To help restore seagrass beds in Indonesia, she listened and learned from the local people, first and foremost. To help pass legislation in California, she spoke to politicians in person. The foundation of modern societal problems is disconnection; between us and the environment, between each other, between ourselves and our own essence. Maybe if we reconnect, we’ll have a chance to solve some of our issues. Maybe, the feeling of never doing enough work to protect the environment is what I need to keep moving forward. Maybe, that was Susan Williams’s secret. She had that voice in her head too.
Hint: This Saturday, September 21st, is International Coastal Cleanup Day.