"Choking on Plastics? - Data From Charleston's Coasts and Critters" & "Found Object Kachinas"

Updated: Jan 30

March 13th, 2018 at Bowties JI Speakeasy, Charleston, SC with Kea Payton, M.S., Marine Science Educator with Patriots Point & Keep Charleston Beautiful, PADI Scuba Instructor with Charleston Scuba, College of Charleston, Grice Marine Biology Program Alumnus AND Marielena Martinez, local artist and STEAM educator

Cultivate began its 2018 season with a very important question, "Choking on Plastics?". Participants of this event engaged with speaker Kea Payton, M.S to discuss the threats plastics pose to the marine environment and how the community could get involved to alleviate the "plastic problem" in Charleston, SC. While engaging with the speaker, participants pulled from unique centerpieces of art supplies and boxes of “trash” -- supplied by Charleston Waterkeeper's volunteer trash sweeps -- to produce magnificent found object Kachina dolls with local artist Marielena Martinez.

About the Science:

Plastic. It’s everywhere. From your take-out containers, cars and even the poly-blend shirt on your back. Globally, three hundred million metric tons of plastic (and counting) are produced from crude oil each year (PlasticEurope 2015). Of that, 8-14 million metric tons end up circulating our world’s oceans (Jambeck et al. 2015; Neufeld et al. 2016). To conceptualize a number that big let’s break it down a little; three hundred million metric tons is equivalent to approximately 100 million African Elephants (as of 2016, only ~ 300,000 exist), or 1.5 million blue whales (only 10,000-25-000 existing today), or 10,737 USS Yorktown’s (only one exists).

Scientists are at a consensus that the earth is entering a new geologic time scale (like the previous Jurassic, Triassic, etc.). This one is termed the Anthropocene and its start partially defined by the presence of plastic in the soil (Waters et al. 2016). Next time you’re taking a walk, start looking down. The problem is overwhelming. The odds are that you will see at least one speck of plastic with every step you take.

Plastics come in many sizes, shapes, and variations, posing countless threats from chemical sorption, entanglement, and the suffocation of wildlife (Rochman 2016). Many organisms are known to mistake plastic items as natural prey, thus we have seen plastic particles throughout the marine food web from the tiniest of zooplankton (Deforges et al. 2015; Payton et al. 2020) to sea turtles and dolphins (Moore 2008), and birds of prey. Studies have shown plastic particles, 5 mm and smaller called microplastics. Some microplastics are produced as fibers from textiles or microbeads such as those now banned from cosmetic products. Microplastics can be found in the Charleston coastal sediment (approximately 300-2400 per square meter in the sediment) and 3+ particles per liter in the Charleston Harbor water column (Wertz 2015; Weinstein et al. 2016; Gray et al. 2018 ). These small plastic particles are ubiquitous and have the potential to pollute the land, the water, the animals that live there, and ultimately us (Andrady 2011).

Fortunately, we can do something about the overwhelming plastic problem. When trying to figure out what you can do to help, try adding two more R's to your "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" motto, Refuse and Repurpose. Choose to change one or two things in your everyday life. Refuse plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, and straws. In addition to refusal, learn to repurpose your waste. Save plastic bottles to fill with water during hurricane season. Keep any plastic bags you receive and use them to clean up after your dog. Even better, create beautiful art with the colorful pieces of plastic you find while glancing down on your daily walk.

About the Art:

The word Kachina is commonly used to reference the Hopi peoples' spiritual beings and the dolls used to represent them. This Native American tribe is a sovereign nation in the northeast area of Arizona. The tribe has lived with a motto of being "peaceful and humble farmers respectful of the land and its resources". For this event, each participant created their own "spirit sculpture" in efforts to enunciate how we too can be stewards of our land. Artists creatively repurposed materials that were recycled in homes, on neighborhood walks or found during beach sweeps. These materials ultimately assembled and embellished each sculpture. Some artists were inspired by the materials themselves, others by the process, and some even were guided by specific animals they had in mind. In the end, every sculpture turned out as unique and beautiful as the spirit of the artist who created them.

Get Involved:

Volunteer with Charleston Waterkeeper

Volunteer with Keep Charleston Beautiful

Vote for Science!

Learn About Microplastics

Learn About Charleston Harbor's Microplastics

Reduce Plastic Waste!

How to Repurpose Plastic Waste!

Check Out All the Fun with the Photos Below!

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  1. Andrady, A.L. 2011. Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 62(8): 1596-1605.

  2. Desforges, J.P.W., Galbraith, M., Ross, P.S., 2015. Ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 69 (3), 320–333.

  3. Gray, A., Leads, R., Wertz, H., Weinstein, J.E., 2018. Microplastic in two South Carolina estuaries: occurrence, distribution, and composition. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 128C, 223–233.

  4. Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R., and K. L. Law. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science. 347(6223).doi: 10.1126/science.1260352

  5. Moore, C. J. 2008. Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: rapidly increasing long-term threat. Environmental Research. 108: 131-139. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2008.07.025

  6. Neufeld, L., Stassen, F., Sheppard, R., and T. Gilman. 2016. The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics. World Economic Forum.

  7. Payton T.G., Beckingham, B.A., and P. Dustan. 2020. Microplastic exposure to zooplankton in tidal fronts of Charleston Harbor, SC. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2019.106510

  8. PlasticsEurope. 2015. Plastics- the facts 2014/2015: An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data. http://www.plasticseurope.org/Document/plastics-the-facts-20142015

  9. Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Galuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E. C., Ellis, M., Jeandel, C., Leinfelder, R., McNeill, J. R., Richter, D. deB., Steffen, W., Syvitski, J., Vidas, D., Wagreich, M., Williams, M., Zhisheng, A., Grinevald, J., Odada, E., Oreskes, N., and A. P. Wolfe. 2016. The anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the holocene. Science. 351(6269): 1-10

  10. Weinstein, J.E., Crocker, B.K., Gray, A.D., 2016. From macroplastic to microplastic: degradation of high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene in a salt marsh habitat. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 35 (7), 1632–1640.

  11. Wertz, H., 2015. Marine Debris in Charleston Harbor: Characterizing Plastic Particles in the Field and Assessing Their Effects on Juvenile Clams (Mercenaria Mencenaria). Master’s Thesis. College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

Blog contributors: Kea Payton, Bridget Knutson & Bobbie Lyon