Foams, fragments and fibers: The commonly found microplastics on N.H. beaches

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Sampling efforts to determine the concentration of tiny bits of plastic on New Hampshire’s beaches have turned up some interesting data trends. The research indicates that small pieces of styrofoam, plastic fragments and filaments — like fishing line or microfibers and tags from clothing — are the top three types of microplastics that are hidden in plain sight among the grains of sand along the N.H. coastline.

Close up of sand in sieve with blue bit of plastic.

Above: This tiny blue piece of plastic found in a sieve sample on a N.H. beach is considered a microplastic.

On March 1, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. at the Portsmouth Public Library, more than two dozen people attended a presentation to learn about microplastics on N.H.’s beaches. The presentation was led by Gabby Bradt, fisheries specialist from N.H. Sea Grant/UNH Cooperative Extension, and hosted by The Blue Ocean Society (BOS). Bradt has been studying the presence of microplastics on the state’s beaches with help from the BOS and numerous volunteers over the past three years, with the intention of continuing these efforts as a long-term research and monitoring program.  

Woman stands in front of two dozen seated people talking about microplastics.

Above: Gabby  Bradt addresses the audience at a recent presentation about microplastics.

Microplastics generally start out as larger pieces of plastic and become broken off into pieces or worn down over time. Technically speaking, a microplastic is 1-5 mm in size — the size of a button — and anything smaller is considered a nanoplastic. Bradt said that microplastics are likely a “pervasive problem” in most waterbodies, but relatively little has been done to assess their concentrations on other northern New England beaches.

The project, which began in 2013 with funding provided by a NHSG development grant, focuses on microplastics surveys conducted on five popular N.H. beaches, including Hampton Beach, Hampton Harbor, North Hampton Beach, Jenness Beach, and Wallis Sands.

Two women search a small patch of sand for microplastics.

Above: Searching for microplastics on Hampton Beach.

Standardized sampling protocols are necessary for scientists to be able to compare different sites — for example, sampling all beaches at the same time on the same day can help ensure that all sites experience similar weather conditions and thereby remove that variable. Bradt acknowledges that a variety of challenges limited her ability to standardize the sampling methods, and so the data results should be viewed as more of a snapshot of the microplastic concentrations among all five of the beaches. Still, the data seem to indicate that Jenness Beach has the highest concentration of microplastics — a fact that surprised some of the audience members.

Foams were by far the most prevalent type of microplastic found on the state’s beaches. Although some of those bits were likely coming from Styrofoam cups, many of the foams found were individual spheres of unknown origin — a finding that flummoxed Bradt. Like a lot of scientific inquiries, much of the research seems to bring up more questions than answers. For example, when a beach is raked, does that impact the number of pieces found? Possibly, Bradt said.

Another strange finding: the nurdle, a small piece of plastic that is easily mistaken for a tiny white rock. These small pre-fabricated beads are the type found in stuffed animals, or used to melt down and make other plastic items. Each year, more and more nurdles have been found in the samples, Bradt said. Is this due to an increase in the number of nurdles on the beach, or instead due to volunteers’ ability to see the nurdles more easily now than before?

Bradt finished up the presentation by saying that although beach clean-ups are important, the real solution involves changes in human behavior. “The only real way to reduce the number of microplastics in our oceans and on our beaches is to decrease our plastic usage,” she said.

More volunteers are needed to help continue the project this year, Bradt said, and she encouraged those interested in helping out to contact her directly. To find our more, please contact Gabby Bradt at: gabriela.bradt@unh.edu.

N.H. Sea Grant promotes the wise use, conservation and sustainable development of marine and coastal resources in the state, the region and beyond. Located at the University of New Hampshire, NHSG is part of a national network of programs located in our coastal and Great Lakes states as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam.  

 

Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant Science Writer