Basics On Microplastics In Oceans

Whenever I have read up on the topic of waste in oceans recently, I usually found a reference to microplastics in oceans as well. I kind of knew what it was all about. At the same time, I always felt I had no idea. Here are answers to some basic question regarding microplastics in oceans.

plastic pollution Kathmandu c Dieter Schütz at pixelio.de
plastic pollution Kathmandu c Dieter Schütz at pixelio.de

Have you ever wondered what microplastics really are? Where they can be found? And why we should worry about them? Have a look at the questions and answers below. And if you have more information and additional resources, please let me know.

More plastic than fish in oceans – a shocking thought

A report issued in January 2016 by the World Economic Forum contains the startling claim that, by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish. The possible effects on food chains and ecosystems mean this is a problem for everyone. And not just for those who value and enjoy the ocean for the leisure pursuits, or relaxation.

“Plastic” does not only include the larger pieces that can easily be identified. Microplastics seem to be the more dangerous ones. But what really are they?

What are microplastics?

In very simple words, they are tiny plastic particles in the environment. Most often you can find them in oceans, seas and inland waterways. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) classify any plastic piece that is less than 5mm in length as microplastic. However, many are too small to be seen, measuring many thousand times smaller than a single millimetre.

How are microplastics formed?

Some originate from larger pieces of plastic that have degraded into tiny fragments. Plastic begins to degrade when it is exposed to the sun. Together, the light and high temperatures begin a process called photo-oxidation. In that, oxygen acts to snap the links that hold molecular chains together. This process happens quickly on a warm and sunny beach. In the oceans, where light, heat and oxygen are much reduced, it happens more slowly. Hence plastic items that reach the ocean before they have degraded to any great extent will stay intact for a long time.

plastic pollution water c Petra Bosse at pixelio.de
plastic pollution water c Petra Bosse at pixelio.de

Another type are small particles that have sloughed off synthetic clothes, such as fleeces.

Microbeads, minute pieces of polyethylene plastic, are a third category. Manufacturers routinely add these tiny plastic beads to many health and beauty products, for example in facial scrubs and toothpastes. Their perceived exfoliating qualities make microbeads so attractive for the beauty industry. Wastewater treatment plants sometimes capture them, quite often (usually) they don’t.

How many of our oceans, seas and waterways are affected?

The short answer is: all of them. Plastic is so endemic that, on a planet with a surface that is 71% water, it has spread everywhere. NOAA reports that plastic constitutes the majority of debris in both the ocean and the Great Lakes. In the UK, a report by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee has alarmed the government. It then announced plans to prohibit the use of microbeads in toiletries and cosmetics.

What is the effect on ecosystems?

They eventually gather in huge “gyres”. Gyres are effectively giant garbage patches in the centre of the oceans.

When it comes to the harm caused to individual species, evidence is clearest in relation to coral. A study by the ARC centre of excellence for coral reef studies at James Cook University showed that these tiny organisms mistake microplastics for prey. Once consumed, they are unable to expel them. The result is slow starvation as the plastics fill their gut.

Another example for potential impact of microplastics to the food chain. The UK Commons Environment Audit Committee has suggested that high levels of microplastics cause damage to marine worms. This has prompted concern that the damage may spread through the food chain to crabs, lobsters and other organisms commonly eaten by humans.

Is there any evidence of harm to human health?

In an effort to get at the truth, the UK Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, is to examine the risks posed to human health by microplastics. She will extent her research to shellfish, oysters and other marine life. It ought to be noted that human dietary exposure is likely to be low, at least in the case of fish. Why is that? Because we usually remove their alimentary tracts before consumption.

What measures are already in place to guard against pollution from microplastics?

In Germany, consumers now need to pay for plastic carrier bags, usually with something like 10 Cents. Some shops have banned them completely, and so have all shops on the island of Fehmarn.

In the UK, the introduction of a 5p charge for plastic carrier bags provided by large stores is predicted to result in seven of the biggest supermarkets issuing 6 billion fewer single-use plastic bags each year. A National Litter Strategy for England is also in development. It is hoped that one of its effects will be a reduction to the amount of plastic waste reaching the waterways, including the ocean.

In the US, former President Obama signed a bill banning the use of microplastics from rinse-off cosmetic products. This resulted in the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Although it was lauded as representing real progress, there is a glaring anomaly: it does not extend to products such as non-rinse-off cosmetics, detergents and sand-blasting materials.

What can you do to reduce microplastics in oceans?

I struggled to come up with a really good answer on this one. The very easy “try to use as little plastic as possible” sounds too easy. At the same time, it is the best solution, I guess.

Plastic is everywhere. However, quite often you can use an alternative. Large production companies need to understand this as well – and some have already started a working group. It’s only a working group, but a lot better than nothing at all.

This topic is so huge and manifold, it is difficult to write short articles only. Do you have more information, additional thoughts regarding microplastics in oceans? I’d be glad to hear your views, experiences worldwide!

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