Deep dive: Ben Lecomte on microplasticsDeep dive: Ben Lecomte on microplastics

Story: Ben Lecomte
Photos: Sarah-Jeanne Royer / Olivier Poirion

May 9, 2019

Long-distance swimmer and ocean advocate Ben Lecomte is on a mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution in our oceans. On the eve of his Vortex Swim through the vortex of ocean plastics known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch, he goes in-depth to explore the hidden problems of microplastics and microfibers.

I first became aware of plastic pollution as a kid, when I started seeing it washing up on beaches. And since then I’ve noticed it during my ocean swimming. Over the years I’ve swum across large areas of the Atlantic and Pacific and seen first-hand the effects of pollution on sea life. People don’t think that the ocean is important for us, but it is very important for us because the ocean can live without us, but we cannot live without the ocean. As a father, I don’t want to pass on this problem of ocean pollution to the next generation. When will be the tipping point, when will it be too late? That I don’t know. That’s why I’m trying to do as much as I can right now to raise awareness and make changes.

The Vortex Swim
In June I will be starting the Vortex Swim, from Hawaii to California through the dense concentration of plastic pollution known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch. I’ll be swimming for up to eight hours a day and my crew and I will be collecting samples for our scientific partners, including researchers at Nasa, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. One of the areas they will be studying is microplastics and microfibers.

A hidden issue
I found out about microplastics when I started looking into plastic pollution and its life cycle in the ocean. Plastic that we use on land and that ends up in the ocean breaks down into smaller particles, called microplastics. In the past three or four years, I’ve also become aware of microfibers, which are little pieces of plastic fiber that are released from synthetic or semi-synthetic clothing when it’s washed, and which end up in the ocean. When I’m swimming, I don’t see the small particles. But there are microplastics and microfibers everywhere. Every time we throw the net out to collect samples, there are microplastics. The biggest amount that we’ve collected is over 600 pieces in one 30-minute trawl. And that’s with a small net, with not much water going through it.

What effect do microfibers have on the human body? We are only at the beginning of our knowledge. Initial research shows that microfibers have a big impact on the endocrine system. We know that microfibers catch and hold on to bacteria, so when you ingest them, you ingest a lot of pollutants with them. We know that the concentration of microfibers in the ocean is increasing. But we need more information. It’s important for us to collect this data so that scientists can analyze it.

Collecting samples
We’ll collect data every 30 to 50 nautical miles, ending up with about 200 samples of microplastics and microfibers. We’ll use nets to collect microplastics and we’ll freeze them for further analysis, so that the scientists can look at what type of organisms are on the plastic. We’ll also collect microfiber samples by filtering the water and then freezing these samples as well. In addition, every time we catch fish for eating, we will keep a sample of flesh for further analysis for microplastic and microfiber content and the level of toxicity.

One of our science partners is the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD in San Diego, California, United States. I’ve been working with Sarah-Jeanne Royer there to plan the data we’ll collect for her and the team there to analyze. I chatted with her recently to get her viewpoint on microplastics and microfibers.

We’ll be collecting samples for you to analyze. Can you talk about some of the things you’re hoping to find out?
SARAH-JEANNE: We don’t understand yet everything about the fate of plastic discarded in the environment and its breakdown in the ocean. How much of this discarded plastic is buoyant? How much of it will sink? We still cannot account for close to 99% of the plastics discarded in the ocean. Hence, we know very little about the final destination of plastics… is it mostly at the seafloor level, in the water column, being ingested by marine life or mostly degraded into such small size particles that we don’t have the proper technology to measure the particles? The research is so young that each study that comes out ends up answering one of 100 questions but then has 200 more questions that come up while other subjects in science have years or decades behind it, so it’s hard to make conclusions right now. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, we need to know the impact of microfibers on the health of humans. This will make things move faster and help design better laws and policies.

What will you do with the research?
SARAH-JEANNE: For me, it’s very important to share the research outside of the scientific community and share the results and the effect of this global issue with consumers. However, with microfibers, the problem is hard for people to understand because the fibers are invisible to the naked eye. Synthetic clothing sheds synthetic microfibers into the air and waterways (rivers, oceans) and we need more research to understand the impact on our environment. Synthetic clothes are made from plastic – which is made from fossil fuel. This toxic product is present in our lives in the everyday items we use. Even when we try to be healthy and exercise, we are wearing plastic – if our clothes are made from synthetic material. We need to find better ways of communicating this issue to consumers and the negative effects that these materials have on the environment and may have on our health. Consumers need to be able to make informed decisions and for this to happen we need to provide them with knowledge; this is one of my end goals as a scientist.

How did you become interested in ocean plastics?
SARAH-JEANNE: I did my PhD in biogeochemistry and the oceanic gases that have an effect on the climate. My first post-doctorate at the University of Hawaii was on the emissions of greenhouse gases from plastics in the environment. During experiments where we were assessing methane production from biology, we discovered that it wasn’t the seawater that was producing most of the gases – it was the plastic bottle that contained the seawater sample itself. And as plastic breaks down into smaller pieces it increases its surface area and more gases are released with time. In other words, all the plastic discarded in the environment since the 1950s is currently degrading and fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces and producing more of these greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.

What do you think the solution is to the plastic problem?
SARAH-JEANNE: I like to think of it this way: there is the plastic from the past (and the present) that is out there in the environment. The only way to help with this issue is to remove it from the environment through river, stream, beach and ocean clean-ups. We have to remove it so it stops harming wildlife, it stops degrading in the environment, it stops spreading invasive species and it stops creating a hazard for navigation. There are issues with recycling, but we can always repurpose plastic locally to maximize what we created without polluting further; we just have to be smart and careful about the ways we make this happen. Then we have to think about the future and the plastic projected to be produced by 2050. If we don’t change anything now, the amount we currently have in the environment will double or even triple in the next two decades and we need to avoid this. We need to develop new products and materials and new business models that are better for the environment (Parley and icebreaker are great examples of this). We need to invest in research and development and we need to prioritize these projects. In addition, some easy fixes are to stop using single-use plastics, as they are not necessary and can be easily replaced by reusable items. Overall, to help consumers we need to bring awareness and give options to them, as in the end they are the ones making the decision. And this is why projects such as the Vortex Swim are so important.

"Plastic that we use on land and that ends up in the ocean breaks down into smaller particles, called microplastics."

Sarah-Jeanne Royer

Scientist Sarah-Jeanne Royer identifying microplastic items at a wildlife refuge in O’ahu, Hawaii.

Microplastic pollution

A sea of beach debris.

Microplastic pollution

Sifting for microplastics.

Microplastic pollution
Microplastic pollution
Microplastic pollution

Part of the focus for researchers is where plastic debris comes from and where it ends up.

Ocean plastics

Plastic pollution ranges from large pieces, such as this UPS crate door, to microscopic plastic fibers.