Plastics are a ubiquitous part of modern life, but as plastic waste accumulates in the environment, it poses an increasing threat to wildlife and human health. Microplastics, particles smaller than 5mm, have become a massive concern for scientists, policymakers, and the public. In this article, we explore what microplastics are, where they come from, and the environmental impact that they are having on our oceans and wildlife.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are particles of plastic that are between 100nm and 5mm in size. Some microplastics are intentionally manufactured to be tiny, such as microbeads used in personal care products, while others are from the degradation of larger plastics. There are also nanoplastics, which are particles smaller than 100nm. Regardless of their size, all plastics contain chemical additives that give them desired properties such as flexibility, durability, and colour.
The most common types of microplastics include fragments, paint particles, films, nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets), microbeads, tire wear particles, and microfibres. Microfibres, originating from clothing, fishing gear, and cigarette filters, are of particular concern, with up to 18 million microfibres potentially released from a single load of synthetic fabric laundry. The release of synthetic microfibres from apparel washing between 1950 and 2016 is estimated to be 5.6 million tons, with half of this amount emitted in the last 10 years. Every year, cigarette butt pollution releases 300,000 tons of microfibres into the environment, which can contain over 4,000 toxic chemicals.
Microplastics are present in every marine habitat studied. Research has shown that 34.8 per cent of total microplastic pollution in the global oceans comes from synthetic fabrics and 28 per cent from tyre friction. Microplastics are small and lightweight, and when they enter the environment, they move between air, freshwater, land, animals, and humans, forming a global microplastic cycle.
To date, 1,300 marine species are known to ingest microplastics, with 60 per cent of fish studied globally containing microplastics. Microfibers are the most prevalent microplastic ingestion by marine life, such as fish, crustaceans, and bivalves. Ingestion of microplastics is also common in birds and mammals, with blue whales, the largest living marine animal, consuming up to 10 million pieces of microplastics per day.
Plastic additives can leach into surrounding waters, and chemicals such as phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), nonylphenols (NP), Bisphenol-A (BPA), and antioxidants are known to cause reproductive problems, damage to the immune system, and other health problems in wildlife and humans.
Microplastics have become a ubiquitous environmental problem affecting our oceans, wildlife, and human health. As awareness of their widespread presence continues to grow, it is vital to continue research and take action to reduce plastic usage and prevent these tiny particles from further polluting our environment. Simple steps like reducing single-use plastics and recycling can make a big difference. Governments and industry must also work together to regulate plastic production and find alternative materials that are safer for the environment.
Ultimately, it is up to all of us to take responsibility for our actions and work towards a more sustainable future. We need to change our relationship with plastic, and work together to find solutions that will benefit both the environment and future generations.
To find out more, go to Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental organisation based in Washington D.C. Its mission is to protect the ocean and its wildlife, ensure that ocean resources are used sustainably, and promote healthy and diverse ocean ecosystems. They focus on addressing pressing ocean conservation issues such as plastic pollution, overfishing, and climate change, through advocacy, science, policy, and local action.
Main photo: Stockholm Syndrome, Adobe Stock