All the basics about microplastics
This year in my zoology class I've been working on a mini research project to do with microplastics. I had never heard of them until I saw the name of my topic and it's come to my attention that not many people know about them, so the aim of this blogpost is to spread the knowledge I have recently gained.
Microplastics are super tiny plastic particles. They are less than five mm in size! Below is a picture of sand particles under a microscope - for my research project we had to sift through these in search of microplastics! That's how small they are! I'll get back to why this matters but let me tell you first a bit about microplastics.
The sad truth is, there is not a location on earth that has not been touched by microplastics. They have been found in ice sheets and on the shores of remote oceanic islands. This means that their effects on life will be felt across the world.
There are two types of microplastics - primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are intentionally made to be tiny. Examples are glitter, those micro-beads you find in face wash, and fabric fibres! That's right! Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, and spandex are all made of tiny plastic filaments. Some of these filaments become loose and, when you wash your clothes, you release them into the water ways. It's estimated that each time you do a load of laundry, you release 900 of these microplastics into the water system! Surprisingly, primary microplastics like these actually make up the majority of microplastics found in the sea, not broken down plastic bottles or plastic bags.
This brings me to secondary microplastics. These are microplastics that come from larger plastic objects like plastic bags, straws, bottles, and other things like hard hats from construction sites, plastic toothbrushes and plastic packaging. Yup - anything that you can think of that's plastic can break down to form microplastics. These objects degrade through mechanical processes - like wave action in the ocean - or light processes - when they spend a lot of time in the sun.
So what's the big woop?
When microplastics find their way into the sea, because they're so tiny they get eaten by filter-feeders which are animals that eat tiny particles that float in suspension in the water (plankton). Examples of filter-feeders are mussels and baleen whales like the blue whale. Microplastics have even been eaten by some corals in the great barrier reef! The plastics themselves might not be so bad, but they have an ability to attract toxins like a magnet, so any chemical and industrial waste that enters the ocean sticks to them. Research on the impacts of ingesting microplastics is still lacking, but it is picking up. There is a possibility that eating microplastic particles will have little to no effect on the lives of these organisms, but it's also a possibility that they will accumulate in their digestive systems, causing blockages and ultimately growth problems or death. It is also hypothesized that microplastics will infiltrate the food web, and eventually exist in the tissues of humans. It's estimated that the average European shellfish eater consumes 11 000 microplastics annually!
Although there is little we can do about the microplastics that are already in the ocean, there's a ton we can do now to reduce the amount of plastic we put into the sea. Steps I have taken include stopping the use of cosmetics and toiletries that contain microplastic beads; stopping the use of glitter (unless it's the biodegradable kind); being conscious of the fabrics in clothing items when I go clothes shopping (I'm opting for cotton, bamboo or linen); and trying to reduce my overall plastic consumption (reusable bottle, bamboo coffee cup, bamboo straws, reusable shopping bags, and package-free toiletries).
It is also the duty of big companies like grocery stores, cosmetic companies and clothing brands to reduce the amount of plastic products and plastic packaging they let persist on their shelves. Many people are unable to invest in reusable or eco-friendly alternatives until they become more affordable and mainstream and it's unfortunate that not all companies are doing all they can.
For now, though, many small and large companies and stores are making changes. Many incredible inventions are being made to take plastic out of the sea or prevent it from getting there. I have faith in the collective creativity and ingenuity of human kind. And I know there are solutions out there.