The Microplastic Problem

By Zoe Jee

While it is commonly known that plastic pollutants are quickly infiltrating the oceans, it is not often acknowledged that many of these plastics are usually unseen by the eye. It is estimated that upwards of 51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean.

            Microplastics are defined as small pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm in size.

Typically, they start as small pieces of plastic for a specific use. This includes microbeads in soap, face wash, and toothpaste, or even microfibers from clothing when it is washed. One study found that of their samples, one-third of the microplastics were microbeads from personal care products. Microplastics can also start as large pieces of plastic that are broken down by sunlight and wave activity. Microplastics can travel far from their source, moving with the current or through animal feces. Because of this, microplastics can be found in places ranging as far as the deep ocean to the Arctic.

            Marine wildlife often mistake microplastic and even nanoplastic as food. Nanoplastics are plastic particles that are less than 100 nm in size. Nanoplastics is probably the least known area of marine litter but potentially also the most hazardous.

            Research has shown that many fish, such as anchovies, perceive microplastics as food due to the smell. This misjudgement can cause major damage to wildlife, such as gut blockage, changes to oxygen levels in cells, adjusted feeding behavior, and reduced energy levels. This affects the growth and reproductive cycles of the organism. Additionally, these effects could be escalated as plastic particles absorb and carry toxic chemicals. Once ingested by the animal, the particles can release harmful chemicals into the body. Two common chemical toxins that have been researched to adhere to microplastic particles are DDT and BPA, most commonly found in insecticide and plastic bottles, respectively. This is not only a problem for marine wildlife, but also affects human health. Microplastics are often found in seafood selected for human consumption. It is estimated that the average European shellfish consumer could ingest as much as 11,000 microplastic particles each year. Microplastics could also affect plants when they absorb water that contains microplastics. This may cause the plants to pick up the harmful bacteria that is attached to the plastic particles. While the exact risk of microplastics to people is unknown, it has already had a negative impact on the environment.

            Scientists are researching ways to remove microplastics from the ocean but they have yet to find an effective method. One positive step is a new method to help identify where the plastics might be located. Scientists can add a certain dye to water samples that attach to the pieces of plastic. This helps scientists detect plastic fragments under a microscope, which can help facilitate research on quantity or type of plastic that is in that region. Many studies are being conducted to find the most effective way to remove microplastics from the ocean.

            While there has yet to be a scientific process created to remove plastic from the ocean, people have been working to reduce the impact of how their waste leads straight to the ocean. Outdoor clothing store Patagonia has funded research to create clothing that reduces the amount of fiber shedding from clothing garments. They are also supporting scientific research to understand the types and sources of microfibers. While research is still being conducted, the Guppy Friend was created to help filter the amount of microfibers that wash into the ocean from the washing machine. The Guppy Friend is a laundry bag that people can put their fleece jackets and other high microfiber clothing in, to filter out microfibers and prevent them from washing into the ocean.

In order to check that the products you use do not use microplastics, this website categorizes products by the amount of microbeads. It also highlights which products are completely microplastic free!

Richard Hyman