Microplastics: A Not-So-Tiny Problem

Feel overwhelmed by the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans?  Here are five easy ways to prevent this tiny trash from entering our waterways and damaging marine ecosystems.

By Pearl Thompson


Everyone knows that plastic waste is a huge problem around the world today. Nowhere is this trash more of a serious problem that in our oceans. 

Whether you love spending time on the beach or in the surf, trash makes our coast a less enjoyable place to be for humans. And as you know, discarded plastics can be devastating for ocean dwellers.

We’ve all seen the sad photos of turtles entangled by trash and whale stomachs full of flip flops and plastic bottles. But what is harder to see are the old, little pieces of plastic that float in the ocean and are mistaken for food by fish and other animal food chains. 

Microplastic is the name for this tiny, broken-down version of plastic. Because it can never fully decompose, plastic slowly disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces and gets into coastal waters, sand, and sediment. 

You Can Help!

Chances are that if you’re reading this, you already know how serious the microplastic problem is – and how helpless it feels to try and solve it. 

The good news is that there are five easy things you can do to help keep microtrash from reaching our oceans.

1. GRAB! If you see trash on the beach, pick it up before it gets in the water. It’s that easy.  If you’re grossed out by touching other people’s trash, join the club. So stash some compostable doggie bags, paper towels or an old rag to use on your hand when you pick up plastic and other garbage along the coast. If there’s no trash can at your beach, consider getting a reusable garbage bag to stash in your board or beach bag. You can dump it at home, hose it out with your other stuff, and use it again next time.

2. SIFT! If you’ve taken part in a Coastal Cleanup day at your local beach lately, you’ll know that the hardest pieces to pick up are the old, small chips of plastic that end up in the drifted sand at the high tide line. These colorful pieces are what end up in the water after the next storm and look like yummy fish food. If you’ve got kids that like to play in the sand, just bring their sand sifter or a wire mesh strainer from home to sift out these plastic bits. Weirdly, after tumbling in the sand and baking in the sun, these pieces of microtrash end up quite beautiful. Wash them up and they can easily be upcycled into arts and crafts. 

3. AVOID all products made with plastic! We all know the drill about not buying single-use plastic bottles, bags, and other containers. But did you know that the #1 source of plastic waste on the beach is the plastic filters in cigarette butts? And that food packaging is more common than water bottles? (Read more in this Ocean Conservancy report.)  It’s also a great policy to choose “plastic-free” toothpaste, face wash, apparel and other products. Some cosmetics are made with tiny plastic pellets and some fabrics like fleece and polyester are made with microplastic fibers. These tiny bits end up going down our drains and into our waterways.  Don’t forget, as consumers, we have power! 

4. BIKE! Did you know that microscopic litter from tires hitting our roads is one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution? These tiny pieces of tire trash wash into our waterways during storms and end up as food for tiny fish. It’s yet another reason to leave your car at home when you can bike, walk or carpool where you need to go.

5. VOTE! There has never been a more important time to back elected officials who support environmental and coastal legislation that preserves our marine ecosystems. Attending the Coastal Recreation Day on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. as part of the Surfrider Foundation delegation, students and volunteers were able to meet with our representatives from Northern California. We discussed important legislation, such as 2000’s BEACH Act and the new Break Free from Plastics Pollutions Act introduced in February 2020.
Click here to fill out a form and automatically tell your elected officials that you support plastic-free oceans!

Find Out More

Want to get more involved? Check these links to learn more and find local organizations that specialize in microplastic pollution prevention.

  • NOAA Microplastic Marine Debris Fact Sheet – A short report on the microplastic problem in American waters.
  • Ocean Conservancy – Find out about coastal cleanups and their Trash Free Seas project and how to get involved. This report gives statistics about their International Coastal Cleanup Day, held this year on Sept. 26, 2020.
  • Surfrider Foundation – National and local chapters organize coastal cleanups throughout the year and advocate for beach and ocean conservation with local and national governments.
  • Marine Mammal Center – Support this famous nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates injured animals in California and Hawaii.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium – The aquarium runs several programs to raise awareness of and prevent plastic pollution in our oceans.
  • National Marine Sanctuaries   A scientist presents a one-hour video webinar called “Plastics in the Ocean: Facts, Fiction, and Unknowns.”  
  • Ocean Cleanup – This is a big project invented by an 18-year-old from The Netherlands that is trying to filter out plastic waste from river and ocean waters.
  • National Geographic “Planet or Plastic” – The foundation has started a big project to discourage plastic use around the world. 
  • World Wildlife Foundation – What you can do to remove plastic from nature.
  • Break Free from Plastics Pollutions Act – Click here to get more information on this new bill in Congress that aims to slow plastic production and use.



Pearl Thompson – June 2020

ROAM Contributor   

As the 2020 intern for the Marin County Surfrider Foundation, Pearl heads up the microplastic pollution awareness campaign. She spends a lot of pre- and post-surf time at the beaches of West Marin picking up trash with her Adventure Dog, Ollie.


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