Microplastics: hidden in plain sight

When I first came across the term ‘microplastics’, I was thinking of small pieces of plastic used in manufacturing and other similar industrial processes. Although these account for a small portion of microplastics found in the environment, a large majority of microplastics actually come from the breakdown of commonly used items like plastic bags, clothing and water bottles. I found that it is a detrimental plague of tiny plastic quite literally touches every corner of the Earth, from the Mariana Trench of the deep sea to high remote Alpine streams. Microplastics are found just about everywhere, from inside your fish from the local fish market to the water you drink from the city water supply. 

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are plastics defined to be 5mm or less in length, making them a similar size to a sesame seed, grain of rice and smaller. 

Ways to slow the microplastic infestation. 

We collectively need to be more aware of our consumption habits and how they can later affect our Earth and the generations that come after ours. When purchasing a product we often forget that just because we are finished using that product and throw it away, that products “lifespan” will continue often for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  With recycling and waste management practices barely better than they were 50 years ago, broken systems and non-existent recycling programs leave consumers with few options for responsible and sustainable ways to deal with plastic disposal. This waste, even when managed correctly, still can easily leech into our water sources, breaking down to form microplastics, furthering the global plastic pollution crisis.

Knowing what products either contain microplastics (like glitter ornaments for Christmas) or are commonly responsible for creating these microplastic waste particles (like single use plastics dinnerware, plastic toys, synthetic clothing, and cookware) will create an understanding of items to avoid purchasing. An important individual step we can take is to focus on conscious consuming. By supporting companies that choose to use sustainable packaging and products that are meant to be used for years to come rather than once and then be thrown away. If we stand together and reduce demand on plastic products and switch to eco-friendly and sustainable options, the overall future input of microplastics on our Earth will start to decrease. 

While the impact individuals have on bettering our environment truly does matter, working as a group can have a far greater impact. An important step in combating plastic pollution and reducing microplastics is starting at home in your own community.  Get involved in litter sweeps in your town, and if none exist start one! Citizen run clean up initiatives can have major impacts beyond removing trash from the environment and beautifying your town. In South Carolina a small group of citizens and local businesses organized weekly litter sweeps, and data on plastic pollution collected by these events was used to influence local and state legislation on single use plastics. For larger scale change on plastic pollution on the national and international level, it is important to support groups that work to end plastic pollution. Groups like 5 Gyres, Plastic Soup Foundation and Plastic Pollution Coalition work to combat plastic pollution through research and advocacy and often take on major corporations that contribute to the plastic epidemic worldwide.  

Some facts and figures about the plastic soup

  • Captain Charles Moore sailed across the ocean in 1997. He saw so much plastic floating about in some areas that he decided to do some research. He then called plastic in the ocean the ‘plastic soup’, because it kind of looked like a vegetable soup, but made of plastic!
  • Every year, about eight million tons of plastic ends up in the sea. That’s about 20,425 tons every day! One ton is the same as 1,000 kilos! Just try to calculate how many kilos 20,425 tons is. This is equivalent to one New York City garbage truck of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute [1]
  • Plastic waste is found in all rivers and seas. Even in the most remote areas and places where few people go, like Antarctica and in the deep sea
  • UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, estimates that millions of animals in the sea die every year because of plastic waste. Animals such as fish, sea birds, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. The Dutch children’s news showed a necropsy (an autopsy on an animal) of a dead Northern fulmar. Click on Jeugdjournaal to see what they found in the bird’s stomach.
  • Plastic particles in the sea attract toxic substances. These plastic particles enter the food chain because birds and fish think they are food. Because we humans are at the top of the food chain, we eat them too.

Plastic Soup Foundation

Where do these microplastics come from? 

In the science world, with this being a relatively new finding as far as conservation and our environment are concerned, not much is known about these plastics or their impact on the health of animals and humans. We do know a majority comes from degraded larger plastic items like fishing nets, plastic bags, or clothing. Waterways are a major transport system for microplastics, but the airways also distribute large amounts of these particles. 

Where do we find Microplastics?

In our food sources, microplastics can be found almost always. Even in the crisp, clean waters off the coast of Norway, microplastics have shown up in the stomachs of some of the most common commercially caught fish, including Cod, Haddock and Mackerel. [2] The fibers of your synthetic clothing, fragments from your tires as you drive down the road, and odd bits from plastic grocery bags are all common sources to name a few. The harder question to answer is where can we not find plastics of any sort?

Microbeads, a subset of microplastics, are manufactured to these extremely minuscule specifications to be used in beauty products, shampoos, car additives, etc. Although, to our Earth’s benefit, in 2015 the United States banned the use of microbeads. ‘Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015’ [4] This is not a new issue unfortunately, microbeads have been used for over 50 years. Consumers became aware and fought back against this as recent as 2012, making this issue newly remedied but not completely ‘fixed’. Due to their size they can pass through city filtration systems and make their way into our waterways, eventually dumping in our oceans. 

Taking it a step further into the nano scale presents a larger issue. Now that we are starting to gain traction on understanding the issue surrounding microplastics, the much smaller nanoplastics (0.001mm and smaller) are nearly unknown. Recent studies have observed the potential for plastic nanoparticles to cross cellular membranes, permeating the tissues that make up both animals and humans [5].  The presence of nanoplastics, due to their small size, is the issue here. They are almost impossible to detect in the environment and their true impact is nearly a complete mystery outside of knowing the simple fact of knowing that they exist. 

Please visit my Precious Plastics Blog Post in order to learn more about how you can turn your plastic waste into something valuable. This will take waste from the street and turn it into products and goods that we can sell and use in different ways on order to truly reduce our footprint and alleviate the need for continued platic production at the rate it is seen today.

About the authors:

Brittney Parker, M.S. 

Brittney received her Master of Science from the College of Charleston in Environmental Science focusing her research on microplastics in fish and how feeding ecology impacts species differently. She received the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship upon graduation and is now working in Washington, D.C on hazard mitigation policy for FEMA.

This was a collaboration of thoughts and ideas from myself, and Brittney, a well-studied Marine scientist from South Carolina. This topic is one very near and dear to Brittney as she has always lived near the water. We both share a passion to help alleviate and hopefully end the plastics issue that we are creating and contuse to worsen. We have provided a vast array of content that will help you get up to speed with the topic. Please get informed and let us know if you have any questions. Thank you!

Sources:

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html

[1] https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/

https://www.adventurescientists.org/microplastics.html

[3] https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-114hr1321enr/pdf/BILLS-114hr1321enr.pdf

https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1050511

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X1830376X?via%3Dihub

https://www.consumerreports.org/food/how-to-eat-less-plastic-microplastics-in-food-water/

[4] https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/files/microbeads-microplastics/

https://science-sciencemag-org.nuncio.cofc.edu/content/sci/360/6384/28.full.pdf

[5] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cphc.201900481 

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/12/microplastic-pollution-is-found-in-deep-sea/  -Mariana Trench

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/microplastics-pollution-falls-from-air-even-mountains/ – Alpine Streams

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