December 6, 2017

A Foundation Looks to Better Understand How Plastic Is Polluting the Seas

News Source: Inside Philanthropy

Author(s): Tate Williams

Marine plastic pollution has been a secondary but growing concern in the huge field of oceans philanthropy. Perhaps part of the reason it’s not been as big of a focus as, say, fisheries or protected areas, is that it’s a slippery topic—there’s still a lot we don’t know.

The Moore Foundation, a large global funder of marine conservation, is backing a two-year study to get a better grip on the issue, at least in its own backyard—the San Francisco Bay Area. The project launched earlier this year with a grant of $880,250 from the foundation, plus $75,000 from water quality partnership the Regional Monitoring Program, and smaller amounts from Patagonia and the East Bay Municipal Utility District. It’s being conducted by scientists at nonprofits 5 Gyres Institute and San Francisco Estuary Institute.

The goal is to get a sense of how much microplastic and nanoplastic pollution is making its way into water, sediment and fish in the bay and nearby marine sanctuaries, and to chart such potential pathways as stormwater and treatment plants. It stands to be the most comprehensive study on microplastics in U.S. waters, following up on a preliminary study that found high levels in the San Francisco Bay.

While we’re learning more about the extent of plastic pollution that makes its way into our waters (spoiler: a lot), plastics at their smallest—smaller than 0.001 millimeters in the case of nanoplastics—are less well understood. Federal and state laws have banned “microbeads” in health and beauty products, but that’s a small part of a problem that includes tiny fibers from clothing and other sources. Even microscopic particles carry chemicals that are harmful when ingested by animals.

The issue is catching on among some marine funders including the Leonardo DiCarprio Foundation and the Oak Foundation, which last year added plastic waste as a priority in its redesigned marine conservation program. One of the biggest players in this space has been charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is backed with corporate and philanthropic support. (We’ve been skeptical of its New Plastics Economy initiative for involving some of the biggest contributors of plastic pollution as corporate partners.)

As far as Moore’s interest, it’s no secret the foundation is a big supporter of ocean conservation. In August, the foundation extended its marine program by $152 million over the next seven years, with focuses on the North American Arctic, British Columbia,and the U.S. West Coast. But plastic pollution has not been a major target to date; funders are more interested in fisheries, ocean planning efforts and protecting specific important geographies. This grant technically falls into the miscellaneous category.

Moore’s also known to get involved in local conservation issues, however, with a separate program devoted to its home region. We’ve written previously about grants to monitor wildlife as development encroaches on open land in the area. Not only is Gordon Moore a California native, but his wealth and philanthropy are rooted in the booming Bay Area and Silicon Valley, where economic growth has led to environmental threats like high levels of pollution in the Bay.

Researchers hope the study will pin down the problem and allow them to suggest ways to control the threat, like industry changes and new policy. It wouldn't be surprising to see additional related grants from Moore down the line.