GEORGETOWN COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Plastics are polluting South Carolina’s land, air and oceans.

It’s a claim not exactly welcomed by coastal communities that depend on tourism and outdoor recreation to fuel the economy. One Coastal Carolina University professor said he’s seeing the affects humans and plastics are having in South Carolina’s coastal waters.

“What continually shocks me is I know people are well-intentioned, but we’re ruining our own life support system on the planet,” said Dan Abel, a professor of Marine science at CCU. “We’re in two ages that aren’t good — one is the age of plastics, and the other is called the Anthropocene.”

Abel said he’s seen the evidence on research excursions in Winyah Bay in Georgetown County.

“Long-lining one day, we caught about a five-and-a-half foot sandbar shark that had been entrapped in plastic packaging,” he said. “[It was] wrapped in a strap and it was starting to eat through the skin of the animal right around the gills. Fortunately, the animal was still feeding because it grabbed the bait we were using on our long line. We were all appalled to see such a beautiful animal — that had we not caught it and released it — would have probably died in weeks.”

Abel’s quick to point out, though, that not all plastic pollution is visible. Some of the plastic making it into the world’s oceans is breaking into small fragments called microplastics, and one of Abel’s students discovered its impact in some local Atlantic Sharpnose Sharks.

“We examined their gut contents to see if there are any microplastics, and we found among the highest levels reported for sharks,” he said. “They come down the river. They come from fishing gear, from pollution and litter on the beach. Our question is are these animals along the coast picking up microplastics here?”

The amount of plastic making its way into the world’s oceans is expected to triple to 29 million metric tons each year by 2040, according to research by the Pew Chairtable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ. The sobering prediction was published in the journal Science in 2020.

“There are people now trying to remove it, but the best thing is to keep it from going in there, and I’m not sure how you squeeze that toothpaste back into the tube,” Abel said. “It’s nearly impossible.”

Plastics – both big and small – are two small parts of a much larger conversation about how marine debris is not only affecting our oceans, but humans too. Right now, the extent is still unclear, and even research on microplastics is relatively new.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program aims to get a better handle on the global conflict and is the federal government’s “lead for addressing marine debris.” It was originally developed in 2006 through the Marine Debris Act, and most recently reauthorized through the Save Our Seas Act. The key legislation focuses on addressing growing amounts of global marine debris and plastic pollution. $10 million will help fund efforts this fiscal year.

“They’re found everywhere,” said Carlie Herring, a NOAA research analyst. “They’re found in the water. They’re found on the beach. They’re found in the Arctic sea ice and they’re found in marine organisms of all different levels of the food chain. I think that is what has drawn a lot of researchers to the topic, as well as the fact that as (plastic) gets smaller and smaller in size, they become available for more and more animals to actually ingest and then potentially have problems.”

The Marine Debris Program focuses on prevention, removal, research, monitoring and detection, response and coordination.

“I think there’s a really great research and prevention community out there,” Herring said. “A lot of people are engaged in the topic and trying to do their part.”

Herring said independent research — including on the collegiate level — is important to getting snapshots of how marine debris and plastic pollution is impacting waters and wildlife. And it’s not just in the ocean. Additional fields of research include lakes, waterways and tributaries.

This year, NOAA’s marine debris program granted five research awards totaling just under $1.4 million to the Rochester Institute of Technology, San Diego State University, the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Villanova University.

“(Overall) We funded over 20 microplastics studies and these are looking at things like the abundance and distribution of where microplastics are that could be in the water on the beach, freshwater as well as marine water in animals,” she said. “We’ve also looked at exposure. So if an animal is ingesting microplastics, how many are they ingesting and what might the risk be from that ingestion? Then we’ve also looked at leaching of chemicals from the plastics, say, into an animal.”

Herring also added some studies have looked at specific commercial seafood species to see if they’re ingesting microplastics that might be harmful to humans.

Both Herring and Abel hope to see advancements in marine debris and plastic pollution prevention, research and response in the coming years. Currently, Herring said there’s a slight disconnect between what’s seen inside labs and out in the environment.

“I think over the next few years, we’ll be getting a lot more research on some of those impacts that are going to be more reflective of what’s happening in the environment,” Herring said.

Research will continue as long as humans continue to use and produce plastic that ends up in freshwater and saltwater

“If you think of an overflowing tub, you need to turn off the tap before you start cleaning up,” Herring said. “So we need to kind of address that source of where plastics are getting into the environment.”

NOAA recommends reducing the number of disposable plastics that are used, participating in beach sweeps, joining organizations like Keep America Beautiful, reporting abandoned boats and reducing and reusing waste.