We’re going to be real with you: microplastics are posing a very serious threat to the health of our oceans. They’re tiny, toxic, insidious pieces of trash that merit our attention. It’s not the happiest, most optimistic topic in the world. However, the more we know about microplastics, the more we can do to stop them from polluting our world!
So grab a cup of your favorite drink, and let’s answer some of the most common questions about microplastic pollution in our oceans and seas. By the end of this blog, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge and know-how to make a difference.
Where do microplastics come from?
Starting off with another hard truth: plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It can take more than 500 years for plastic to break down, and even then, it doesn’t fully disappear. Plastic bags, bottles, and plastic utensils break down into tiny plastic pieces over time. This means that every piece of plastic you’ve used in your lifetime unless recycled, is still around today.
Because there is so much plastic in our daily lives, there are a ton of microplastic pollution sources. All plastic items – water bottles, straws, cups, and even car fenders – eventually break down into fragmented plastic particles over time. Ocean waves repeatedly crashing onto larger plastic debris can further deteriorate them, grinding them down into smaller pieces that eventually blend into the sand.
Did you know your face wash may be contributing to plastic pollution? Children’s toys, nylon ropes, fishing nets, and even your regular load of laundry can release millions of tiny plastic microfibers into the water system. That’s because polyester is a plastic.
Long story short: microplastics come from our phones, our body care products, our Tupperware, and so many of our daily use items.
Remember when we said that microplastic is insidious? That’s because it absorbs other contaminants in water, becoming increasingly toxic over time. Chemicals from municipal and agricultural runoff tend to enter our water systems. Plastics can absorb substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are linked to severe human health issues such as cancer.
These chemicals, absorbed by microplastics, make the pieces even more dangerous to the marine animals that mistake them for food. Over time, these toxic pieces of plastic pass further up the food chain. Eventually, humans are impacted through the ingestion of seafood.
The Size of Microplastics
The microplastics in our oceans usually measure less than five millimeters in length. You can imagine them as smaller than the diameter of a normal plastic drinking straw. All microplastics can be categorized into two types: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics are deliberately manufactured in small sizes for specific purposes. Microbeads, which are minuscule plastic spheres, are incorporated by manufacturers into various products like body washes and toothpastes to enhance their exfoliating ability.
Nurdles, small lentil-sized pellets used in the production of numerous plastic items, are intentionally designed to be small, too.
Secondary microplastics are the result of the degradation of larger plastic items from environmental factors like exposure to sunlight, fluctuations in temperature, and humidity. These plastics constitute a majority of the particles hiding in our oceans.
What are Nanoplastics?
As the name suggests, nanoplastics are extremely tiny particles of plastic – smaller than microplastics. They typically measure less than 100 nanometers. Due to their diminutive size, nanoplastics can not be seen by the naked human eye. They’re truly an unseen pollutant harming our ocean’s health.
Why are microplastics a problem?
Tens of millions of tons of plastic enter the Earth's oceans annually. Microplastics, as part of that equation, are very tiny and widespread. Marine animals ingest these toxic plastics, transferring the chemicals up the food chain. Their small size and persistence make them challenging to remove from the ocean.
Initially, scientists believed this plastic mostly accumulated in visible garbage patches and gyres on the ocean's surface. However, only about one percent has been found in surface surveys.
A recent model revealed that since 1950, nearly all (99.8 percent) of the ocean's plastic has sunk below the first few hundred feet. Research indicates that the seafloor contains 10,000 times more microplastics compared to contaminated surface waters.
Beyond their prevalence, microplastics can contain harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A that are used in their production. Researchers are investigating the potential health risks associated with microplastics, aiming to identify the most toxic types and assess the extent of ingestion by marine creatures, posing potential dangers to both marine life and human health.
All of this leads us to the conclusion that microplastics are poisoning marine life and will eventually poison the seafood our society relies on for nutrition, too. These marine creatures are essential to the balance of delicate marine ecosystems, part of our Earth’s sacred biodiversity (not to mention our interconnectedness and reliance on these systems for our survival). Because microplastics are so small, and hide under the surface of the water, it makes them a difficult challenge to address.
How do microplastics harm the ocean?
Once plastic items are thrown in trash cans, they are often collected and transported to landfills or waste management facilities. Due to things like wind or improper disposal, some plastics may end up in rivers or waterways. Then, they are carried into the ocean through storm drains or water runoff. In coastal areas, littering and improper waste disposal near beaches can also lead to direct entry of plastics into the ocean.
You have probably seen the photos. Large pieces of plastic entangling sea turtles, or dolphins getting trapped in plastic bags. Larger plastics have an evident impact on marine life, widely recognized in photos. Plastics can look like a food source for many sea creatures. They accidentally eat the toxic plastic by mistaking it for lunch.
The impacts of microplastics on marine life remain less understood. Marine creatures like plankton and young fish consume these tiny particles. Filter-feeding animals such as oysters and scallops, commonly consumed by humans, ingest these particles as they filter seawater.
This process moves toxins up the food chain. When ingested, these plastics can accumulate in the digestive tracts of these creatures, causing internal damage, reduced nutrient intake, and even death.
Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned chemical absorption. Researchers are currently investigating the potential health risks associated with microplastics, aiming to identify the most toxic types.
Microplastics Impact on Human Health
Scientists are working hard to assess the extent of ingestion by marine creatures, posing potential dangers to both marine life and human health. The impact of microplastics on human health is an area of growing concern and ongoing research.
There are concerns that ingested microplastics might accumulate in human tissues and organs, potentially causing inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular damage. Some microplastics may contain or attract harmful chemicals, leading to potential toxicological effects that could impact human health. This includes potential endocrine system and immune responses.
Further comprehensive studies are needed to fully understand the extent and specific health impacts of microplastics on humans.
Are microplastics worse than larger plastic items?
While both pose a threat to marine ecosystems, microplastics have distinct dangers. Their small size allows them to easily enter the food chain at its lowest levels. As they move up the food web, these tiny plastics can accumulate in larger animals, potentially reaching our plates through seafood consumption. This raises concerns about the potential impact on human health, although more research is needed to understand the full extent of these risks.
Plastic is primarily made from petroleum, a product derived from crude oil refining. It’s generally awful for our environment, due to its permanent nature and chemical footprint. Whether it’s large plastic tubs, ghost nets from the fishing industry, or nanoplastics…plastics are no good for our seas.
What can we do to stop microplastic pollution?
These fragments are so tiny that they can easily slip through filtration systems, finding their way into rivers, lakes, and ultimately, the ocean. Let’s talk about several easy ways you can reduce your contribution to microplastic pollution.
- Avoid Products with Microplastics: Check product labels and steer clear of items containing known microplastics, such as microbeads found in face washes and toothpaste.
- Embrace Reusables: Reduce single-use plastics from your routine by opting for reusable alternatives like metal straws, cloth shopping bags, and refillable drink containers.
- Make Conscious Consumption Choices: Minimize plastic consumption by choosing items packaged in sustainable materials, like aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles. Gradually incorporate these changes into your lifestyle for lasting impact!
- Choose Sustainable Business Practices: If you're a business owner, prioritize sustainable packaging options to reduce plastic waste. Packaging is a major source of non-biodegradable, non-recyclable waste.
- Advocate for Change: Write letters or emails to companies requesting the use of sustainable packaging! You could even encourage your city to enforce a ban on plastic bags. Consider using template letters and campaigns found online to streamline the process. You’re not alone in the fight against plastic pollution!
- Manage Synthetic Clothing: Limit microfiber pollution by reducing the frequency of washing synthetic clothes and using the Cora microfiber catching laundry ball in your wash to capture microfibers.
- Support Legislative Actions: Vote for laws and regulations that impose bans or taxes on plastics, contributing to effective policy changes. Bring on the plastic bag tax!
- Promote Recycling: Encourage and support recycling initiatives in your community. It all starts with a great recycling system at home. Be sure to fully understand the recycling criteria for your municipality.
- Spread Awareness: Share information about microplastic pollution with friends, family, students, and anyone who will take the time to listen! The more people know, the more we can reduce our contribution to plastic landfill waste and protect our oceans.
Tackling the Plastics Problem in 2024
Microplastics might be small in size, but their impact on our oceans and marine life is monumental. By educating ourselves and others about the dangers of microplastics, we can advocate for policy changes and innovative solutions.
Supporting organizations and initiatives dedicated to cleaning up our oceans can make a difference in combating plastic pollution. Many eco-conscious businesses are working to create sustainable alternatives to our daily plastic items.
Through collective action and mindful choices, we can work towards reducing the presence of these unseen pollutants and safeguarding the health of our oceans for generations to come.
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