Beat Plastic Pollution

URI scientists studying relationships between plastics pollution, climate change

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI (WPRI) — University of Rhode Island researchers Andrew Davies and Coleen Suckling have been working together for several years, including their time spent overseas working with a team from Bangor University in Wales and Zoological Society London.

Both Davies and Suckling are research in Rhode Island, focused on learning more about where plastics are located, how they get there, and what impacts they have on marine life and the surrounding areas.

Davies, an associate professor of biological sciences, and Suckling, an assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, have been this research for quite some time and say their goal is to create a better understanding regarding plastics in our waters, both fresh and salt bodies.

“We’ve been working for several years to try and establish baselines for environmental contamination, what kind of plastics are in the bay, in Rhode Island waters, and in freshwaters as well,” Davies said.

Davies said they also hope to be able to inform agencies like the RI Department of Environmental Management about what types of plastics are in the waters and how polluted the bay is.

Using information gathered from their research, Suckling, who is also an eco physiologist, is focusing on organismal responses. She said her goal is to better understand how animals are responding to pressures induced by humans.

“We’ll be looking at climate change as one of those elements and also with plastics as well,” Suckling said.

URI Students and Staff Sampling near URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus. Credit: Rory Maynard-Dean (Graduate Student, Suckling & Davies Lab, URI)

Large plastics break down into smaller plastics called microplastics, which Suckling says are too small for the eye to see and can be ingested by animals unable to differentiate them from food sources.

According to Suckling, some of the studies used high concentration of plastics — higher than we’d ever see in our oceans — so the results regarding animals’ responses are skewed. Suckling says their goal is to understand how the animals respond to the actual concentrations of plastic in our oceans, which happen to be quite low.

As storm to intensify, becoming more likely, and often times produce heavier rains and larger storm surge, more trash and plastics will be cycled from both land to ocean and ocean to land.

“If we see increase in storms or increase in rainfall, churning of the waves, churning of the ocean,” Suckling said. “There’s a lot of material that gets washed into the ocean, but vice versa there’s also a lot of material that gets pushed out of the ocean.”

Suckling, when speaking about URI, said they “recognize that there are emerging environmental challenges that our oceans face.”

“This is the decade of the ocean at the moment.” Suckling added.

Suckling also noted that URI offers a Marine Plastic Pollution course for undergraduates and graduate students. The course focuses on these emerging climate crises that are on the rise.

URI also hosts Sustaining Our Shores every Tuesday at 7 pm from September through December, where international experts are invited to speak on themes of topical interest..

On Nov. 16, an international expert will be at URI speaking on plastic pollution, which is an open session to those who’d like to attend. You can find out more information about this event and register online.


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