What Are Microplastics?
If you’ve ever watched the National Geographic Channel, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a program or two on the dangers of plastic debris in our oceans. Unfortunately, these segments often include disturbing images of animals tangled up in soda can rings or struggling to swim with bags around their necks. But what are microplastics? Are they just as harmful to marine life?
Microplastic is any plastic debris measuring less than five millimeters in length — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) equates the size to that of a sesame seed. Scroll down for more information about these fragments and their impact on our ecosystem.
Sources of Microplastics
Microplastics come from a variety of different sources. This includes debris from large plastic items that have been broken down over time into smaller fragments, as well as resin pellets that are used for plastic manufacturing.
Another form of microplastic is microbeads (made up of manufactured polyethylene plastic), which were commonly added to health and beauty products — like cleansers and toothpastes — as exfoliants. However, in December 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which prohibits the manufacture of “rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads.”
Though the study of microplastics is still in the early stages, the fact that microbeads are small enough to pass through water filtration systems is considered a potential threat to aquatic life, who might mistake the tiny pieces for food.
How Do Microplastics Affect the Environment?
According to the NOAA, not much is known about the impact of microplastics because it’s a relatively new area of study. However, fragments have been found in the stomachs of marine organisms, which yielded some interesting findings.
Previous studies suggest that chemical additives on the microplastics can dissolve out into the ocean or that contaminants in the water may stick to the tiny particles. Ongoing research by the NOAA and others will help determine whether these contaminants can be transferred between species.
Are Microplastics Harmful?
Microplastics pose a threat to marine life. Animals can easily mistake the pieces for food. Researchers are also trying to determine whether certain pollutants, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), can leak from microplastics into the organisms that eat them. However, it is difficult to figure out exactly where those pollutants are coming from. The studies conducted so far appear to suggest that microplastics aren’t nearly as harmful to sea creatures as large plastic items.
Why Are Microplastics Bad?
Any sort of plastic deposited into a body of water can be detrimental to the organisms living there. Currently, tests are being run to pinpoint exactly how microplastics impact the environment, though the main concerns include animals consuming fragments and pollutants from the particles contaminating the creatures that eat them.
Microplastics’ Effect on Marine Life/Fish
As mentioned above, the impact of microplastics on both marine life and humans is still being researched, but previous studies have shown that fish and other sea creatures do eat plastic. This can lead to irritation or damage in their digestive systems.
In some instances, an animal may be tricked into thinking it’s full if the plastic stays in its gut, thus causing malnutrition or starvation.
Microplastics’ Effect on Humans
Given that microplastics are often invisible to the naked eye, it’s relatively easy for humans to consume them without realizing it. In fact, the average person is regularly exposed to various types of microplastics in his or her food.
One common way to ingest the particles is through the consumption of fish. If a fish ingests microplastics and is then eaten by a human, the fragments are inadvertently transferred into that individual’s digestive system.
More research is needed to determine whether the consumption of microplastics has any noticeable effect on human health, though previous studies suggest that it doesn’t have a significant impact.
Microplastics in Drinking Water
A study conducted by the State University of New York at Fredonia found that water from plastic bottles contains twice as many microplastics as tap water. The data collected suggests that at least part of that contamination comes from the packaging and/or bottling process itself. However, we still don’t know whether or not this contamination has an impact on human health as more research is needed.
Microplastics in the Ocean
The NOAA states that plastic is one of the most common types of marine debris. Because plastic products degrade into smaller pieces over time, microplastics are prevalent in any body of water that’s been polluted with this type of waste.
“Bio-based and truly biodegradable plastics break down in a compost pile or landfill, but are generally not designed to degrade as quickly in the ocean,” a NOAA PDF on plastic marine debris reads.
Though the improper disposal of waste continues to taint our oceans, lakes and rivers, there are things that you as an individual can do to help remedy the problem.
Though the issues caused by plastics won’t go away overnight, there are ways you can help keep the problem from getting worse. Join cleanup efforts by visiting the NOAA Marine Debris Program page to find projects in your area.
You can also make a difference by reducing the amount of waste you produce, reusing items when possible, like water bottles, and recycling in your home, workplace, and school.
In summary, here are some important facts you should remember about microplastics:
- A microplastic is any plastic debris measuring less than five millimeters in length.
- Microplastics are typically manufactured as microbeads, capsules, fibers or pellets. They also come from large plastic items that have been broken down over time into smaller fragments.
- Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of marine organisms and previous studies suggest that chemical additives from the particles could leach out into those organisms.
- The study of microplastics’ impact on both aquatic life and humans is still in the early stages. A lot more research needs to be conducted before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
- You can help by participating in local cleanups, reducing waste, reusing items when possible and recycling.
China is banning several kinds of single-use plastic gradually over the next five years.
A single-use plastic ban is going into effect in these Caribbean nations.
Though some countries are worse than others when it comes to ocean pollution, it’s a problem that affects all of us.
The "Interceptor" is the latest from The Ocean Cleanup.
More than a year after the launch of System 001, The Ocean Cleanup confirms that they’ve been successful in retrieving trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
This study found that it's raining plastic — here's why.
Are plastic straws really that bad?
This could remove 85 percent of microplastics from the ocean.
The U.K.'s 5p fee on bags has been extremely effective.
Here's what we can do about it.
A garment can produce 1,900 microfibers in just one wash cycle.
Plastic pollution continues to be a huge problem for marine animals.
A sixth-grader in Massachusetts has begun developing a robot that's able to detect microplastics in our ocean after wanting to make a difference at the Boston Harbor. Her ultimate goal is to create a way to also pick up trash and cut costs in the process.
Four more countries have joined the United Nations Environment Clean Seas initiative, which aims to engage communities in the prevention and cleanup of plastics in the ocean. Forty countries are now participating in the campaign.
Researchers in Pakistan have stumbled upon a type of fungus that naturally eats certain kinds of plastics, offering a potential solution to the world's plastic waste problems.
Just in time for the United States ban on the production of waterway-contaminating microbeads to take effect in July, scientists have announced that they have figured out how to make biodegradable microbeads for inclusion in everything from toothpaste to face scrubs.