Searching microplastics (copy)

Participants in an field trip with the Breaking Down Plastic summit examine microplastics collected in small nets in Charleston Harbor. Larger plastic objects - including bags - break down over time in water and work their way up the food chain. 

The story of the rise of plastics in our lives is astonishing. This material, which was essentially unknown to our grandparents, is now perceived as indispensable. It has infiltrated every aspect of our lives and nearly every ecosystem on earth, including oceanic trenches and even the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Plastics’ inert composition and ability to last (and last, and last) may eventually make it the best geological indicator of our generation. Unfortunately, the characteristics that make plastic fantastic also render it ecologically problematic. Plastic, once littered into the environment, is one of today’s most pressing conservation concerns, with potentially devastating impacts on human health and safety, local economies and local ecosystems.

With our local waterways front of mind, the South Carolina Aquarium partnered with 5 Gyres and Lonely Whale last March to host Breaking Down Plastic, a public conference dedicated to accelerating our shared understanding of the hazards associated with plastic pollution, as well as to provide individuals with the information and tools necessary to advance relevant solutions within their own communities.

Collaborations forged by Breaking Down Plastic have strengthened local communities. For example, the 2017 Strawless Summer campaign initiated by the Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation brought together nearly 100 restaurants, bars and Charleston venues with the challenge to “stop sucking.” Impressive strides have also been made by partners such as Mason Preparatory School, Charleston Waterkeeper, The Outside Foundation, Coastal Expeditions, North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol, and Keep Dorchester County Beautiful, among many others.

Excitingly, the South Carolina Aquarium’s partnerships with the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL), Charleston Friends of the Library, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) resulted in CCPL ending their use and annual distribution of more than 20,000 single-use plastic bags and paper bags at all 16 branch locations. This timely action was the result of a mission-based initiative that began on World Oceans Day last June.

Our organizations joined forces to distribute more than 4,700 free reusable tote bags at libraries. Library supporters were thrilled with CCPL’s inclusive approach to embracing the culture of reusability and to achieving a measurable reduction in plastic bags entering the local waste stream. This model has already been replicated in Horry County. Thanks to the leadership of local citizens, the Horry County Library system chose to say goodbye to plastic bags as of Jan. 1.

Locally, everyday citizens are making a sizeable impact. Since Breaking Down Plastic, more than 230 citizen scientists of all ages have removed and logged more than 137,000 pieces of litter using the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science mobile app. Data contributed to the Litter-free Digital Journal is freely accessible by all and has been shared with communities statewide in an effort to identify local issues and seek solutions. This crowdsourced data has informed nine single-use plastic policy discussions in the past year alone, including considerations by Folly Beach, Beaufort County, Mount Pleasant and even at the state level.

Despite efforts to reduce the amount of single-use plastics locally, plastic production continues to accelerate. More plastic has been produced in the last decade -- 320 million tons -- than at any previous point in history. The majority of this plastic is used only one time, like the packaging inside your shipping boxes or the green straw in your iced latte, and then discarded into landfills or the environment.

Locally, 75 percent of all patients rehabilitated by the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center for ingested plastic waste since 2000 have been treated in the past three years. In 2017, the Aquarium rehabilitated more sea turtles that had ingested plastic trash than ever before. This trend is certainly worrisome, and perhaps indicative of increasing amounts of plastic waste in our local waters.

In the next year, the Aquarium hopes to connect with the citizens of South Carolina, to listen to your voices. Perhaps your contributions to our citizen science project, Litter-free Digital Journal, will help inform decision making in your own community.

Perhaps you joined us for the South Carolina Aquarium Conservation Gala to be inspired by guest of honor Dr. Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and research director of 5 Gyres Institute and an influential voice for innovative change.

Perhaps, like our exemplary Mason Preparatory School students, you’ll reach out to your local schools, businesses or communities to share your knowledge of plastic pollution and enact solutions.

Let us continue to work toward our shared goal of reducing environmental plastic pollution. Together, we can make a positive change our communities.

Al George is director of conservation with the South Carolina Aquarium.