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What Are Microplastics?

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Source: iStock

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.

Microplastic Solutions

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.

Microplastics Facts

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.