One thing that people are just now starting to be aware of is microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean. The blog will cover how they can affect marine life and what they could mean for humans, including our food supply.
What Microplastics are and How They Affect the Ocean
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size, which enter the ocean from a variety of sources including industrial waste and synthetic clothing fibers washing into wastewater plants that release them into rivers and streams. They disperse easily, traveling up and down coastlines and even across oceans until they get trapped by currents or are eaten by marine life.
Microplastics have been found in all five of the ocean’s subtropical gyres, or circular currents, and have even reached as far as the Arctic and Antarctic poles. They also make up most of the Great Pacific Garbage patch, an area roughly three times the size of France.
Effect on Marine Life
Because they resemble food, tiny marine crustaceans such as shrimp and krill often eat microplastics. They then travel up the food chain to bigger seafood, including tuna and swordfish. Humans who eat a lot of seafood are consuming plastic particles with their dinners, which raises concerns about how plastic could affect people’s health. For example, chemicals and toxins associated with plastics may cause cancer, genetic defects and other health problems.
Microplastics accumulate pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), as well as other chemicals that have been banned for decades. These substances could potentially be released into the human body when consumed, causing cancer and/or birth defects.
Straws and Plastic Bags
Making sure to avoid plastic bags and straws can help reduce our contribution to microplastic pollution; instead of grabbing a bag at the grocery store or asking for a straw at a restaurant, people can bring their own reusable bags or cups with them to avoid having single-use plastics waste. Moreover, washing clothes in cold water (rather than hot) cuts down on the amount of microfibers ending up in wastewater plants and ultimately oceans.
Banning plastics is not a practical solution in the current world economy, where plastics have been integrated into just about every aspect of life. There are also many positive uses of plastic that nobody wants to get rid of. Instead, people should use their buying power to support companies who incorporate sustainable plastics practices into their business model through proper disposal and recycling. In addition, scientists are looking into different types of plastic that naturally biodegrade.
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is examining how microplastics affect marine organisms, including tiny zooplankton. The Marine Debris Program at NOAA has even produced a video game called “Plastic Runner” to raise awareness about microplastics.
Call to Action
The Ocean Conservancy is leading efforts to clean up beaches, waterways and oceans with its international Break Free From Plastic movement. Local groups are also being formed around the world to help reduce plastic use on a community level. For instance, in October 2017 Honolulu’s city council passed a bill outlawing plastic bags in the Aloha State, which will go into effect in 2020.
Some solutions to microplastic pollution that have been suggested are banning certain plastics or restricting their use at beaches where wildlife is most likely to come into contact with them.
The world could potentially become a healthier and cleaner place if everyone makes an effort to cut back on their use of plastics. The more we do now, the less we’ll have to do later.