Views of Seattle from the westside of the city
The natural beauty and rugged geography of this coastal region hide a growing list of threats to the ecological health of Puget Sound. A prominent example is that plastic pollution that poses a direct danger to wildlife, their habitat, and humans.
Whether during production, incineration, or deterioration, plastic objects of all sizes, including particles visible only with a microscope, carry toxic substances that pollute the waters of Puget Sound.
The smallest pieces (less than 0.2 inches or 5 millimeters) are the most commonly found in the ocean, and the most damaging. Due to their petrochemical composition, these particles can act like sponges that attract other pollutants and toxic chemicals. The ingestion of these microplastic particles causes disorders in the immune and reproductive systems of marine fauna.
This problem is seen up close and personal at the Seattle Aquarium, an enclosure located along the Seattle Waterfront. A 26-block stretch that combines stunning views of Elliott Bay with major tourist attractions, the waterfront is a magnet for all those who visit the city looking for recreational activities and connecting with the ocean’s beauty. The millions of residents and tourists who pass through the district every year can visit one of the obligatory attractions. An example is the Great Wheel of Seattle, a 174-foot-high structure that when opened in 2012 was the largest Ferris wheel on the West Coast of the US. There are also countless souvenir shops and restaurants that offer classic dishes such as crab cakes, oysters on the shell, or salmon prepared in various ways. Tourism is undoubtedly crucial to the area’s economic prosperity, but this same flow of people and throng of shops and restaurants are often unknowingly responsible for this type of pollution. It can be as simple as fibers shedding from your clothing and falling into sinkholes, ending up in the strait waters.
Photo of the Malecon in Seattle
The Seattle Aquarium is one of the organizations that collects and disseminates scientific evidence on the actual dimension of the microplastic problem. Because of its location across from Elliott Bay, the aquarium’s researchers can easily collect water samples to examine the issue, explains Nora Nickum, Ocean Policy Manager. Currently, Nickum focuses on promoting laws and policies that improve the protection of the ocean and its inhabitants.
The Malecon in Seattle
A study conducted throughout 2019 and 2020 verified the prevalence of microplastics. Every two weeks, aquarium scientists examined 26 gallons (100 liters) of saltwater at a depth of approximately 30 feet below the aquarium. They report “[having] found microplastics in all the samples they have studied. Many microplastics are clothing fibers that fall from our clothes when we walk in the street, and then the rain washes them into the sea. They can also come from washing our clothes at home. Those bits fall off the clothes, go to the sewage treatment plant, and then into the sea. And we care about both the big pieces and the little ones,” says Nickum.
These are examples of the microparticles that were found in the collected samples. The length ranges between 100 and 1,000 μm (microns). By comparison, a grain of rice measures 7,000 to 9,000 μm.
Credit: Seattle Aquarium. A) blue foil, B) blue fiber, C) blue fragment, D) black fiber. Examples of different morphologies and colors, where the photos are representative samples of A) blue foil, B) blue fiber, C) blue fragment, D) black fiber.
Initially, the aquarium’s goal was to determine the baseline concentration of microplastics in Elliot Bay for future comparison. , The study began in the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic and continued through the first year, when tourism fell drastically in Seattle. This phenomenon helped highlight a drastic change. There was a noticeable decrease in the concentration of particles after April 10, 2020, when the order of Governor Jay Inslee suspended commercial activity in the State of Washington. Thus, the pandemic revealed the degree of the effects of human influence on the contamination of the strait.
The conclusions of the study also include the following:
- All the microparticles analyzed contained plastics generated by human beings (anthropogenic).
- Plastic fibers were the most common microparticles. They were mainly clothing fibers.
- Microplastic concentrations ranged from 0 to 3.4 particles per gallon (or 0-0.64 particles per liter).
Aquarium scientists now fear that an upcoming study of the bay’s waters will show a considerable increase in the concentration of microplastics with the return of tourist activity to pre-pandemic levels. However, the forecast could fall short due to an additional factor; namely the significant increase in the use of single-use plastics and disposable materials to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Nora Nickum, Ocean Policy Manager Seattle Aquarium
“For health reasons, many companies and people changed to using disposable products and things in individual packages to avoid the virus. Then the studies showed that the virus did not stay in those things as much, and we did not need to make these changes, but it is difficult to go back to the way it was before, “says Nickum.
Microplastics in the ocean pose a significant long-term problem since there is not yet an effective way to eliminate them. “Once they are there in the environment, it is tough to clean the sea. Perhaps on a beach, big things can be put in the garbage, but there is no way to get microplastics out of the water now, “says Nickum.
Therefore, avoiding this type of contamination is urgent. Both the Seattle Aquarium and the scientific community make the following recommendations to adjust plastic consumption habits in several ways:
- Use reusable bags to make purchases in supermarkets or other commercial establishments.
- Avoid the use of plastic cutlery and look for sustainable alternatives.
- Buy clothes that do not contain synthetic microfibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, or polyamide.
- Avoid buying single-use bottles and containers.
But according to Nickum, some strategies can make an impact faster and on a larger scale. “We’re making some of those changes already, but it helps a lot when people communicate with their legislators and say, ‘We want you to pass these laws.’ It is difficult for an organization alone to change things, but more change happens when people ask for it”.
Among the laws that have been successfully passed in Washington to reduce plastic pollution is SB-5323, approved during the 2020 legislative session to prohibit the distribution and delivery of single-use plastic bags in stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and festivals. This rule also establishes the charge of 8 cents for paper bags and sets parameters on the supplies to manufacture reusable bags. Although it only came into effect in October 2021 due to a delay caused by the pandemic, the environmental community celebrated its implementation.
Likewise, the Washington Legislature approved SB-5022, which prohibits plastic or polystyrene foam in manufacturing a wide variety of consumer products, such as takeout containers. Thus, Washington became the sixth US state to adopt laws that ban this technology. It is considered by the scientific community to be highly harmful to the environment, due to its high levels of toxic chemicals and the extreme difficulty and cost of recycling.
However, legislative activism and lobbying will continue to be a necessity in the future. “Some countries and some states already have laws that require manufacturers of plastic products to pay for a recycling system that works better so that, for example, all the people who live in the state have a free recycling service, so that the producers who use more sustainable materials pay less, then there is that incentive to change the design of products and containers so that they are things that are easier to reuse or recycle. All of this can transform the system so that there is less plastic production, more production of other sustainable things, and there is less garbage that goes into the sea”, concludes Nickum.
Beyond disseminating scientific evidence and state policy, the Seattle Aquarium aims to inspire an emotional connection between the people who live and visit Puget Sound, and with the surrounding wildlife and environment.
Visitante Visitors interacting with anemones in the public pool at the Seattle Aquarium
“At the Aquarium, for example, they have a tidal exhibit, and if you touch a sea urchin, it will put its spines around your finger. And that interaction makes me feel connected and develop compassion for that creature, and it makes me want to take civic action, have conversations, and learn more. So, I think empathy creates that special connection by giving people that power, that motivation,” explains Gabi Esparza, Empathy Teacher, Seattle Aquarium.
The Empathy Program presents opportunities to representatives of historically marginalized communities for personal and professional development and financial support for one year.
The aquarium has a wide range of initiatives dedicated to encouraging learning and participation in the Puget Sound area’s communities of color, including:
Community Connections: Offers free admission and membership discounts for some organizations.
Virtual Tours: Allow you to get to know the aquarium from remote locations in Washington state.
Naturalists on the Beaches: More than 200 volunteers offer guided tours during the summer.
Return of Salmon on the Cedar River: Volunteers provide orientation on the Cedar River in the fall when salmon return home to complete their reproductive cycle.
Additionally, the aquarium has teamed up with the Consulate General of Mexico in Seattle to provide a degree of educational content for these programs in Spanish.
The Aquarium strives to engage everyone in Puget Sound in environmental conservation by providing these opportunities to develop a more intimate relationship with wildlife and the environment. To inspire changes in behavior, no matter how small, and thereby support environmental goals.
“Some actions may seem insignificant, like not using plastic bottles or picking up a piece of garbage, but you are showing the planet and wildlife that you care and that energy is not wasted, even though the crisis we face seems overwhelming,” adds Esparza.