[UW Today]: UW oceanography senior finds plastic microfibers are common on Puget Sound beaches

Profile picture of Frances Eshom-Arzadon
Oceanography senior Frances Eshom-Arzadon collects beach sediment at Edmonds Marina Beach in February. She sampled each beach in the same way and at the same point in the tidal cycle to allow comparisons between sites.

This article was originally published on UW Today: Hickey, H. (2017, June 29). UW oceanography senior finds plastic microfibers are common on Puget Sound beaches. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/news/. [link to original article]. Frances Eshom-Arzadon is a major in Oceanography and a Minor in Marine Biology. The COASST lab is recruiting current UW undergrads, and you can find out more about COASST internships here.

As the infamous floating “garbage patch” churns up bits of plastic in the tropical Pacific Ocean, a University of Washington undergraduate has discovered a related problem much closer to home: nearly invisible bits of plastic on Puget Sound beaches.

As a year-long project toward a UW bachelor’s degree, the oceanography major visited 12 beaches around Puget Sound to tally the number of microplastics, generally classified as fragments between 0.3 and 5 millimeters (1/100 to 1/5 of an inch) or smaller than a grain of rice.

While she found all the Puget Sound beaches to be clean when compared with the Mediterranean Sea, local shores are far from pristine. Residents also may be surprised to learn that polar fleece and other synthetic fibers are the main source of plastic fragments on our beaches.

“Plastics can harm marine life, and can in some cases be the primary cause of death,” said Frances Eshom-Arzadon, who graduated in June. “Smaller organisms ingest microplastics, and then larger organisms, including humans, consume it indirectly.”

As part of her senior thesis project, Eshom-Arzadon visited each location once at the same time in the tidal cycle between November and February. She scraped sediment from an area just below the wrack line, the line of debris left by the high tide. She visited beaches from Tolmie State Park near Olympia, along the Seattle and Everett shorelines and as far out as Port Ludlow on the Olympic Peninsula, a control site far from populated areas.

Back in the lab, Eshom-Arzadon dried the samples, then used chemicals and weight-based techniques to separate the plastic from sand and other material.

Her sampling methods followed the procedures established by Julie Masura, a UW Tacoma lecturer who has been tracking marine microplastics in the region for almost a decade.Her results show that small plastics are widespread along the shore of Puget Sound. All 12 samples contained microplastics, at an average of 1,776 pieces per 3-foot-square sampling plot. The highest concentration of plastics by number was at Howarth Park in Everett, followed by Carkeek Park and Alki Beach Park in Seattle. The cleanest beaches were at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and Edmonds Marina Beach, both situated on points of land near ferry terminals.

“Plastics, specifically microplastics, have been found in over 90 percent of the surface samples collected in Puget Sound since 2008,” said Masura, who was not involved in this course. “We have yet to correlate the presence of plastic and other environmental factors.”

Eshom-Arzadon’s project included counting the plastic fragments and classifying them into six types: Styrofoam, fibers, fragments, flakes, films and synthetic sponges. Some 73 percent of the pieces she collected on local beaches were microfibers. These thin strands are not from the breakdown of larger litter, such as plastic bottles or disposable cutlery; rather, they start when fabrics shed fibers that flow out with laundry water after washing synthetic fabrics, like polar fleece or other types of polyester.

“I wasn’t expecting to find so many fibers,” Eshom-Arzadon said. “When people do laundry, all their effluent with those microfibers is getting washed out. Those fibers come off clothes and get washed out already in the size of microplastics, so they can’t be filtered out.”

She noted that front-loading machines have been shown to generate fewer microfibers in washing water, while Patagonia and other clothing companies have recently begun efforts to produce synthetic fabrics that shed less fuzz.

The average overall concentration of microplastics was slightly higher on Seattle city beaches, providing only weak support for Eshom-Arzadon’s hypothesis that microplastics would be more common in densely populated areas. But she and her advisers concluded that a one-time sample was probably not enough to properly rank the locations.

“All of these beaches are cleaned by volunteer groups, and it’s not clear which are cleaned more regularly,” Eshom-Arzadon said. “Ocean currents can also carry debris to different places, and can affect how much litter you would find in a one-time sampling.”

Eshom-Arzadon became interested in this topic after doing an undergraduate service learning project with the UW-based Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, COASST. She volunteered to survey beaches around Seattle and her native Edmonds looking for stranded birds and marine debris. She also took an undergraduate class on marine pollution that included a section on marine plastics.

Two other UW oceanography senior thesis projects this year also looked at microplastics. Ty Mahoney sampled microplastics in Hood Canal and faster-flowing waters around Whidbey Island, and found that the debris tends to accumulate in the more stagnant sections. Gerrad Hofmans sampled water from near the source of the glacier-fed Snohomish River down to its mouth in Puget Sound, finding that the concentration of microplastics increases on the way downstream.

“Over the past three years we’ve had a student each year looking at plastics, but Frances is the first student we’ve had that wanted to sample beaches,” said Kathy Newell, a research scientist in UW School of Oceanography who supervised all three undergraduate research projects. “Some studies suggest plastics accumulate in certain areas. There are so many variables — tides, winds, currents, time of year — and there hasn’t been a long-term study on plastics in Puget Sound.”

Those results could help inform the work of Masura and others who are trying to measure and understand plastic pollution locally.

“As with many research groups, we find that plastics are quite prolific,” Masura said.

Her group is working to develop an interactive map that will display the results of the samples collected with the support of government agencies, colleges, schools and nonprofits.

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For more information, contact Eshom-Arzadon at eshomf@uw.edu or 425-501-7018, Masura at 253-692-4317 or jmasura@uw.edu, and Newell at newell@ocean.washington.edu or 206-543-6119.


Coastal Seabird Survey Team (COASST) summer/autumn internships

COASST internship headerJoin the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team!

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the
University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting undergraduate interns
for the upcoming academic quarter.

COASST works with approximately 1,000 citizen science participants, using their data on beach-cast
carcasses of marine birds to establish the baseline, or ‘normal’ pattern of beached bird mortality on
North Pacific beaches. Baselines are crucial for assessing the impacts of oil spills, fisheries, and climate
change in the marine environment. Additionally, COASST recently developed a new marine debris
data collection project, focusing attention on debris attributes related to potential harm to wildlife,
new aquatic invasions, sourcing, and oceanographic modeling.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen
science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include:

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Opportunities are available each quarter for 2-3 college credits. Each credit requires 4 hours of work
per week.

How to Apply:

Interested students should send an email with COASST Internship in the subject line to Erika Frost,
Participant Engagement Manager, at efrost@uw.edu.

Please attach your resume and include a statement of interest that contains:

  • Applicable background in marine biology and/or communications (coursework, job experience)
  • Any experience with data, statistics packages, databases (excel, R, catalyst etc.)
  • Any experience with volunteers, volunteer programs, and/or other research labs
  • Availability between 9:30am-5:30pm Monday-Friday.

Internship: Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences)

COASST internship header

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting interns for Autumn and Winter quarter.

COASST works with approximately 800 citizen science participants, using their data on beach-cast carcasses of marine birds to establish the baseline, or ‘normal’ pattern of beached bird mortality on North Pacific beaches. Baselines are crucial for assessing the impacts of oil spills, fisheries, and climate change in the marine environment. Additionally, COASST recently developed a new marine debris data collection project, focusing attention on debris attributes related to potential harm to wildlife, new aquatic invasions, sourcing, and oceanographic modeling.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include:

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Opportunities are available each quarter for 2-3 college credits. Each credit requires 4 hours of work per week.

How to Apply:

Interested students should send an email with COASST Internship in the subject line to Erika Frost, Participant Engagement Manager, efrost@uw.edu

Please attach your resume and include a statement of interest that contains:

  • Applicable background in marine biology and/or communications (coursework, job experience)
  • Any experience with data, statistics packages, databases (excel, R, catalyst etc.)
  • Any experience with volunteers, volunteer programs, and/or other research labs

• Availability between 9:30am-5:30pm Monday-Friday.


[internship] Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) (Seattle, WA)

COASST internship header

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting undergraduate interns for Summer and Fall.

COASST works with approximately 800 citizen science participants, using their data on beach-cast carcasses of marine birds to establish the baseline, or ‘normal’ pattern of beached bird mortality on North Pacific beaches. Baselines are crucial for assessing the impacts of oil spills, fisheries, and climate change in the marine environment. Additionally, COASST recently developed a new marine debris data collection project, focusing attention on debris attributes related to potential harm to wildlife, new aquatic invasions, sourcing, and oceanographic modeling.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Opportunities are available each quarter for 2-3 college credits. Each credit requires 4 hours of work per week.

How to Apply

Interested students should send an email with COASST Internship in the subject line to Erika Frost, Participant Engagement Manager, efrost@uw.edu

Please attach your resume and include a statement of interest that contains:

  • Applicable background in marine biology and/or communications (coursework, job experience)
  • Any experience with data, statistics packages, databases (excel, R, catalyst etc.)
  • Any experience with volunteers, volunteer programs, and/or other research labs
  • Availability between 9:30am-5:30pm Monday-Friday.