Justin Baumann is a marine biologist and science communicator. He writes for the Under the C blog and is finishing his doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on coral reef ecology.
Plastic pollution has become a serious and long-term problem both on land and in the oceans. Since the widespread use of plastics after the end of World War II, recent estimates suggest that there are 13 million tons of plastics in our oceans today. Many an ad campaign has been launched to teach people about recycling plastics. After several decades of such campaigns, many people are aware of the environmental hazards associated with plastics, yet at least 25% of Americans do not recycle at all!
We know that plastics can injure marine life such as sea turtles and birds, who eat the plastics, mistaking them for food and die. But scientists are now concerned about an even bigger problem in the form of microplastic pollution.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that accrue in the ocean. Microbeads in your face wash or toothpaste–that’s right, you may wash your face and teeth with tiny plastics – and microfibers, like the kind in your new Patagonia sweater or your yoga pants just two examples. Such microbeads have been in the news recently, as they are in the process of being banned in the U.S. and abroad.
But that those are not the only sources of microplastics. Most plastics cannot be decomposed by bacteria or other organisms, which scientists call this biodegrading. However, the plastic polymers do break down due to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, mechanical mixing, and reacting with the seawater. A plastic bottle that ends up in the ocean will eventually crumble into millions of microscopic plastic particles and will stay in the ecosystem to cause harm for long periods of time. Banning the use of microbeads in products is a step in the right direction, but will not solve our ocean microplastics problem, as almost all large piece of plastic that reaches the ocean will eventually break down into microplastics.
Where do microplastics end up?
Microplastics, and plastics in general, tend to end up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. In the oceans, they end up in places like the great Pacific garbage patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean bigger than Texas that is covered in trash!
Since microplastics are so small, they leave our homes through wastewater from the shower and the washing machine. Most of our water is treated before being released back into the environment, but most treatment plants can’t capture microplastics because of their size. Check out the short video below to learn more about the garbage patch.
There are 5 giant garbage patches in the ocean that match up with the 5 main gyres (circular ocean currents). Plastics and other trash that run-off from land or are dumped in the oceans accumulate in the middle of these patches due to the circular motion of the currents.
Microplastics, and plastics in general, are not only ending up in these 5 gyres. While they start out on our coastlines, our beaches, and in our rivers, they end up in many far-flung places, such as in Arctic sea ice or even in our table salt! In short, plastics -and microplastics- are everywhere!
The problem with microplastics
The problem while microplastics is that they contain chemicals, some of which have been shown to cause a lot of harm. When the microplastics are consumed by a fish, those chemicals accumulate in their tissue. When that fish is then consumed by other wildlife or humans, they pass on those toxins, hurting other species higher up the food chain. Microplastics are particularly harmful to filter feeders, such as oysters, krill, clams, mussels, and certain types of fish. Filter feeders are vital to coastal ecosystems because they filter the water, removing toxins and excess nutrients from the water.
Without filter feeders, those toxins would be present in larger quantities, causing harm to more organisms. Removing filter feeders from the ecosystem would also cause an oversupply of sediment and nutrients that would increase algal growth and decrease light penetration in the water, and a smelly, and murky coastline. Humans also eat filter feeders so a decline in oyster and mussel numbers will have socioeconomic impacts as well. Similar impacts will be seen in fisheries, where if toxin levels get too high in a fish or a certain area, the fisheries may shut down, doing further damage to the local economy and to the livelihood of large groups of people worldwide.
Additionally, due to their small size, microplastics are very hard to clean up. Local beach cleanup efforts and even large-scale ocean cleanup efforts like The Ocean Cleanup will not be effective at removing them. Traditional water treatment plants, dryer filters, and sewers are also not effective at removing microplastics due to their size. As a result, it is likely that we will continue to see microplastic pollution for years to come in our oceans.
What you can do
Most climate and environmental problems seem so big that no one can stop them. However, we can all make a conscious decision to change the way we live and in doing so, we can help solve even the greatest of problems. For example, Mumbai, one of the most populated cities in the entire world just cleaned up 4 million pounds of trash from a very polluted beach and returned it to a beautiful, usable beach. We can do this. Here is how you can help:
- Use reusable items in place of plastic single-use items. The number one thing we need to do on a global scale is change the way we view products and cut down on disposable goods. Do you buy bottled water? Unless you do not have access to safe drinking water, a real problem in many areas, you don’t need bottled water. Bring a reusable water bottle wherever you go and fill it up as needed.
- Recycle. If you use paper or plastic products please recycle them. Do you need that coke? If yes, make sure you recycle the bottle! Most cities and towns have a recycling program and you can find information about what is collected and how it is collected on their website. If you are a seasoned recycling veteran, please take a look at your local recycling website. Some rules have changed. For example, my town requests that we keep lids on the bottle instead of removing them (they apparently clog the new sorting machines). Take a look and do your best to follow the rules!
- Don’t use a straw. Join a growing community of people worldwide who request not to receive a straw when eating out. Better yet, petition your school or work to ban the straw! It’s a one-time use item that always gets thrown away and is a huge waste. They also have a sweet hashtag: #stopsucking
- Stay away from microbeads. Don’t buy products (face wash, body wash, toothpaste) that contain plastic microbeads. This is the easiest way to keep microplastics out of the water.
- Donate to groups like 5 Gyres or The Nature Conservancy as they are working to solve our ocean plastics problems.
- Bring your own bags to the grocery store. You don’t need those plastic bags, not even for produce. Bring your own bags for both (search for reusable produce bags on Amazon or at REI or other outdoor stores).
- Use washer balls when washing clothes to collect the fibers (http://rozaliaproject.org/stop-microfiber-pollution/). When you use your dryer, make sure to empty the lint collector or use a dryer ball. Better yet, hang dry your clothes at it puts less stress on them and prevents fibers from coming loose.
More on microplastics:
The Ocean Cleanup is a controversial topic for marine scientists. It has taken its share of criticism and is widely considered to an imperfect solution by scientists. To read more about this see the following links:
- New Technology to Help Clean Ocean Plastic (Under the C Blog)
- The Value of Invention: 3 years of the Ocean Clean Up (Under the C Blog)
- The Ocean Clean Up, Part 1 and Part 2 (Deep Sea News)
- To Good to Be True: The Ocean Clean Up faces feasibility questions (The Guardian)