Microplastics –Our Not so Micro Problem

 

I thought I’d add some salt (pun intended) to this proverbial fresh water salad by touching on a type of ocean pollution many of you would not have heard of. When it comes to our waste ending up in our oceans, the phrase “out of sight out of mind” immediately rears it’s ugly face. Few people come into direct contact with the ocean each day and I think this leads people to believe they’ve had no part to play in ocean pollution. Here’s a fun fact, more than 80% of waste that ends up in oceans is generated on land. Whether you live a stones throw away from the beach or 1000 km’s inland, we all have a role to play in protecting our oceans.

A major contributor to ocean pollution is plastic. Previously conservationists had thought the main threat to biodiversity from plastics was from animals ingesting, or being entangled by, larger plastic objects. While this remains a serious threat, new research is revealing that it is the presence of microplastics in the oceans that should worry us the most. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 millimetres in length to be exact. The issue of microplastics has recently come into the spotlight due to the increased use of plastic microbeads in modern personal care products, such as exfoliating shower gel, toothpaste, and makeup. Once washed down the drain, vast amounts end up in the ocean as they are too small to be filtered out during sewerage treatment. A recent study found that microplastic accumulation totalled up to 236 000 tons (± 51 trillion particles) in global oceans.

Scientists are starting to get a grip on the effects of microplastics on marine biodiversity. Many organisms, including fish, oysters, mussels and plankton ingest microplastics as they mistake them as a food source. Microplastics accumulate within the organism as they are practically indestructible in the environment. What’s more, microplastics adsorb and concentrate toxic chemicals from seawater, effectively acting like toxic pills for the marine life that eat them. For organisms such as plankton, which form the base of the marine food chain, this is a very sobering thought.

So sobering in fact that world leaders have begun to act upon it. By 2016 year end, America, Canada, Australia and several EU countries, to name a few, had initiated plans to phase out the use of microbeads in the cosmetic industry by 2019. In the meantime, how we can limit our usage of these pesky plastics. Fauna and Flora International (FFI), of which Sir David Attenborough himself is a vice president, has launched the Good Scrub Guide which helps you find microplastic free toothpastes, body washes and more. For those of you worried about losing that Instagram smile, these products work just as well their plastic containing counterparts. In addition, the FFI outlines some very simple tips on how to reduce our use of general plastics. For everyone who buys (and throws away) a new plastic pump bottle each day, take a look.

As someone who has been involved in marine research over the past few years, I have learned just how much we take the ocean for granted. The point of my 2 cents worth here is not to point fingers at anyone, merely to bring the issue of microplastics to light and enable you, the reader, to make more environmentally conscious day-to-day decisions.

By Ryan Cloete, PhD Candidate – Environmental Geochemistry

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