My love of the beach began at a very young age. I loved finding samples of the treasures it held — beach glass, shells, hermit crabs and starfish. But most of all I loved the sense of freedom the beach gave me. For little Emma, the beach was an extension of my simple, creative and free childhood.

However, my love of this special place has evolved since my younger days. It has transformed from the simple love of a fun place to play into a deeper, more complex love rooted in a feeling of duty to protect this special, crucial place. My personal connection to the ocean has grown as my knowledge of it grows. In my Marine Science class this spring, I quickly learned that phytoplankton in the ocean make 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean serves as a sink for our excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Our precious ocean also helps distribute heat throughout the waters and consequently the land it surrounds.

I also learned that one of the most serious issues our ocean faces today is the rising concentration of microplastics. Microplastics are often defined as small bits of plastic less than 10 millimeters in size. Because of their small size, many of these particles are invisible to the naked eye and require a microscope to be seen at all. There are also various types of microplastics — those found in exfoliating face and body washes and cosmetics that are already very small are known as primary plastics, and microplastics that came from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic are known as secondary plastics.

The problems begin with the zooplankton who eat the microplastics and either die from starvation or are eaten by their predators, who then ingest the microplastics; following this pattern, microplastics eventually reach the digestive systems of our food.

I recently completed a research project on microplastics that explored the concentrations of microplastics off the coast of Freeport. Many previous studies tested microplastic abundance in surface water, but my team was curious about abundance in waters below the surface and coastal sediments — but we certainly didn’t expect the results we found. My research team found a shockingly high concentration of microplastics in both locations we sampled, but we found the highest concentrations in the place we least expected — the sediments. This meant that many of the previous calculations in the studies we reviewed were misleading in terms of the abundance of plastics in marine ecosystems because they were not taking into account the microplastics that had sunk and become trapped in the sediments. We also found a surprising correlation between increased microplastic concentration in the surface waters and recent rainfall, which strongly suggested that many of the microplastics we were finding came from land sources.

Microplastics come from sources such as microfleeces, microbeads in washes and bits of plastic from soda bottles and sea plastic — all controllable human sources. These plastics enter the ocean as they leach from landfills and water filtration systems. A recent study conducted in New York estimated that nearly 19 tons of microbeads are discarded into wastewater by the state each year. These studies show how preventable this source can be in the future, since it is completely human-based and is driven by our “throw-away” culture.

To solve this problem, we must first begin to make this problem a larger issue in our everyday lives. Consumers have great power over the products corporations make. If we stop buying certain products, companies will cease to make them. Some companies have responded to consumer complaints; one campaign called “Beat the Microbead” even created an app sold worldwide whose purpose is to inform consumers if the product they are buying contains microbeads. Companies such as Unilever and The Body Shop have promised to completely phase out their use of microbeads by 2015. Other companies promised to phase out their use of microplastics and microbeads by the beginning of 2014. Progress is clearly being made, but there is still so much to do.

As my team analyzed the results from our research, we found terrible trends in the data — high concentrations of microplastics in the sediments and deep water. This was a real turning point for me. I began to realize the true complexity of the relationship that we all have with the ocean. If we want to continue to enjoy the ocean’s beauty, we must take action to protect it. Our use of single-use plastics, microbead washes and our careless disposal of these plastics are causing grave damage to the ocean. Many people think, “Well, I am just one person — my actions can’t make a difference,” but the truth is our actions can make a huge difference. If each person recognized his or her own role in microplastic ocean pollution, we could turn around this growing problem.

As a child the ocean felt like another home; I felt protected there with the sound of the waves crashing. But now, I feel as though I have the duty to protect the ocean. We vitally need the ocean more than many people are aware: it serves as a source for copious amounts of oxygen as well as a sink for our carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention the emotional value it holds for so many of us. We must begin showing how much we value the ocean by being more conscious about our actions and their long-term effects on the ocean and the world around us.

Emma McGurren of Lincolnville is a junior at Camden Hills Regional High School. This piece is adapted from an essay she wrote while participating in Coastal Studies for Girls, a semester-long marine science and leadership school for 10th-grade girls held in Freeport. The essay won an honorable mention in the international “From the Bow Seat” Ocean Awareness Student Contest. The full essay is available on the Coastal Studies for Girls website,