Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay Examined in April 2016 Report from Bay Program’s Scientific and Technial Advisory Committee

On April 18, 2016, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee published “Technical Review of Microbeads/Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay.”  The 27-page report (STAC Publication 16-002) is available online at http://www.chesapeake.org/stac/stac_pubs.php).

Following is an excerpt from the report’s Executive Summary:
“Recent estimates indicate that there are trillions of pieces of plastic floating at or near the surface of the world’s oceans, and that the majority of this pollution is microplastic (less than 5 mm in size).  Like larger items of plastic debris, microplastic has been reported in nearly all aquatic habitats, from the surface to the depths of every major open ocean and in freshwater lakes and rivers.  The small size of microplastic makes it bioavailable to a wide range of species of aquatic animals, across nearly all sizes and trophic levels.  Recently, one source of microplastic debris has received much attention in the media and from policy makers: synthetic plastic microbeads.  [See, for example, House Bill 1697 in the 2015 Virginia General Assembly, “Synthetic plastic microbeads; prohibition against manufacture or sale of certain products, penalty.”]

“This review panel was originally tasked to write a report describing the scientific evidence regarding plastic microbeads as it relates to microplastic contamination in general and in the Chesapeake Bay in particular.  In the interim, federal legislation to ban microbeads, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, was signed by President Obama on December 28, 2015.  [Information on that legislation is available online at https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1321/text/pl.]  While laudable in its intent, the Act leaves much to be desired for microplastic mitigation. The Microbead-Free Waters Act (i) does not mitigate all sources of microbeads to aquatic habitats (i.e., only applies to rinse-off personal care products), and (ii) is restrictive when it comes to potential innovative technological solutions (i.e., may prevent use of any new types of plastic microbeads in some applications, even if they are environmentally benign).  Accordingly, future legislation and regulation, whether concerning microbeads or other sources of microplastics, should more carefully address these issues.

“Due to the original tasking, this report emphasizes microbeads.  However, because microbeads are not the only source of microplastic contaminating local habitats, this report’s scope has been broadened to include information regarding microplastic in general.”

For a news media account of the report and the issue of microplastics, please see Microplastic pollution in the Bay poses risks, report finds, Bay Journal, 4/18/16.

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