Plastic pollution research

Researchers collaborating with the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas collect plastic samples in the Atlantic Ocean for a scientific study.

PORT ARANSAS — A professor and graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas helped an international team of researchers determine why some plastics sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Most of the plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean tends to float on the surface, but around 1% of plastic waste goes down into the deep sea, according to a news release from the UT Marine Science Institute.

Marine biologists from Germany ventured out near the Azores Islands in 2019 to collect samples of the plastic materials that end up in the bottom of the Atlantic. Their findings were delivered to the Marine Science Institute’s laboratory in Port Aransas.

Sally Palmer, a communications manager with the Marine Science Institute, said professor Zhanfei Liu and graduate student Xingtao Jiang studied small plastic particles that clustered with organic material that plankton and other organisms on for food. This “marine snow” tends to sink down to the deep sea.

“While the materials slowly degrade, they get a gluey substance that allows them to clump together with other things,” Palmer said. “The marine snow gets bigger and bigger as it sinks.”

Inside their Port Aransas laboratory, Liu and Jiang collected data on the types of plastics found and the sizes of the materials.

“Using our instruments, we were able to look at a marine snow sample, pick out what was plastic, and (identify) both the type and size,” Jiang, the graduate student, said in a statement.

Although only a tiny fraction of the 150-million tons of plastic pollution manages to head down to the bottom of the ocean, underwater ecosystems are still vulnerable to health risks brought on by the remains of human-made products, the researchers found.

“The more plastic particles are included in the marine snow, the greater the risk for marine life that feeds on it,” Luisa Galgani, the lead author of the study, said.

Liu, the UT professor who participated in the study, came up with two conclusions based on the research.

“This is an incredible amount of plastic in the snow, and it shows that marine snow is a large mechanism that is moving plastic to the bottom of the ocean,” Liu said.

More information on the plastics research can be found in a scientific journal entry published this year.

Liu and others at the Marine Science Institute are pursuing other plastic-related projects, such as the study of how microorganisms absorb toxins found in plastic particles.

Leo Bertucci is a Report for America corps member who covers energy and environment for the Victoria Advocate.

Energy and Environment Reporter

Before moving to the Crossroads, Leo Bertucci studied journalism and political science at Western Kentucky University.