EPA Funds University of Hawaii Marine Debris Research Project

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently provided $15,000 in funding to the University of Hawaii to further research efforts on marine debris.

The funding will be used to begin studying plastic debris caught in the filters of ship-board cooling systems – this project will develop methods and protocols to better monitor debris as the ships cross the Pacific. Investigation and study of plastic debris in filters of cargo ships will further the understanding of the nature and distribution of plastic debris pollution throughout the North Pacific Ocean.

“Plastic marine debris can have a large impact on the marine environment as it never really ‘goes away’ -- it eventually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and can be eaten by wildlife such as seabirds and fish,” said Dean Higuchi, EPA’s press officer for Hawaii and the Pacific islands. “Our funding will support the efforts of the university, which is a strong partner in marine debris research and a leader in creating forecasting tools for marine debris movements.”

Marine debris can damage wildlife habitats, transport chemical pollutants, threaten marine life, and interfere with human uses of marine and coastal environments. Plastic marine debris has great potential to alter the environment and impact humans and wildlife. Approximately half of all plastics are buoyant and float close to the ocean surface, are widely transported by ocean currents, and persist in the environment for years.

Some studies have concluded that much of the plastic debris found in the North Pacific consists of small pieces of plastic less than the size of a dime. These small pieces of plastic can be eaten by fish, birds and other marine life. Since plastic does not break down quickly, it displaces food in an animal’s stomach, and can lead to starvation.

Research has shown that persistent organic pollutants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) adsorb to and concentrate on plastic debris in the marine environment. Few studies, however, have examined the effects of ingestion of marine debris-borne contaminants on wildlife. Plastic debris in the marine environment poses the possibility of these types of pollutants associated with marine debris being transferred into the food chain.