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Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm long which are harmful to the ocean and aquatic life – and potentially to humans. Research into microplastics is still in its infancy; not much is known about them and their influence – but we do know that they are having an impact on the environment.
Microplastics originate from a number of sources, including the degradation of larger pieces of plastics, synthetic fibers, and microbeads found in health and beauty and cleaning products. Plastics and beads of this size can pass easily through water filtrations systems. Once in the ocean, they are mistaken by aquatic creatures and birds for food and can accumulate up the food chain until they reach humans. Humans are likely to ingest microplastics by consuming seafood and other foods, or simply by drinking tap water and we just don’t know what risks these minute pieces of plastics pose.
Research published in 2018 suggested the levels of microplastic pollution in the oceans was worse than first thought, with the current estimate of 5 trillion particles worldwide being far too low. The highest microplastic pollution discovered yet in the world was in a river in Manchester, UK. Major floods in the area in 2015-16 flushed more than 40 billion pieces of microplastics out into the sea. This suggests that the problem actually begins upstream in the river catchments – if these areas can be controlled then perhaps the clean-up of the oceans can begin.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program is developing and testing standardized field methods for collecting sediment, sand, and surface-water microplastics. The aim is to eventually allow for a global comparison of the number of microplastics in the environment. This is seen as the first step in determining the final distribution, impact, and fate of these troublesome plastic pieces.
Plastics blighting the environment is not a new problem; it has been amassing gradually since the 1960s to the point that huge masses of plastic are floating in the oceans with still more washing up on the once spotless beaches of the world. The issue of microbeads entering the ocean is not even new: these tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene – which act as an exfoliant in products such as cleansers and toothpaste – replaced natural products and have been making their way into the environment for almost 50 years.
Thankfully, there has been a reversal in the trend of using microbeads in consumer care products, and in 2015, President Barak Obama signed the Microbead-free waters Act which banned their use. The UK – and many other countries – have followed suit. The European Parliament’s environment committee wants to go further; they will ban microplastics in personal care products by 2020 and are drawing up minimum requirements for member states to tackle other sources of microplastics and place taxes on plastic to fund projects to prevent the generation of plastic waste.
Effects of Microplastics on the Environment
But what effect are microplastics having on the environment? The BBC’s Blue Planet II, in which viewers saw albatross parents unknowingly feeding their chicks plastic they had mistaken for food, highlighted the problems plastics are posing. Attention was again drawn to microplastics in early 2018 when the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a health review after research showed microplastics had been found in 90% of bottled water. The team analyzed 259 bottles from 19 locations, nine countries, and 11 different brands and found in some cases, the levels of plastic fibers in bottled water could be double that found in tap water.
And the truth is many of the effects of microplastics on the environment remain unknown. Plastic waste is having a devastating effect on the marine ecosystem; fish, marine mammals, and seabirds are being injured and killed by it, and it is it believed that 700 species could go extinct because of it.
It is estimated that over 90% of seabirds have pieces of plastic in their stomachs with one study finding that 98% of chicks sampled contained plastics, with the quantity of plastic ingested increasing over time. Although the effects of microplastics are still under investigation, it's likely they have already contributed to the untimely deaths of many sea creatures. Worse still, the effects on human health remain unclear, and more research is necessary to uncover our fate.
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