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Microplastics: What are they and why are they a  problem?

flickr | Florida Sea Grant | Edited by Frontier

Naturally, we have mentioned plastics before on this blog. We can’t talk about environmental conservation without mentioning the plastic crisis... There is a specific type of plastic that has been wreaking havoc for over 50 years and only recently have we picked up on it. Microplastics have slipped through the net both figuratively and literally. The dangers they pose were not viewed as a hazard or even well understood until as recently as 2012.

flickr | Chesapeake Bay ProgramWhat Are They?

Microplastics are currently at the forefront of environmental concerns. They are what they say on the tin; very small pieces of plastic, they are made to microscopic. Plastics have always been a dominant threat to marine life and are the most extensive form of debris found in our oceans. Microplastics play a huge part in this, as they have been used in toiletries for over half a century and are now used in over 90% of all cosmetic products! Microbeads are the specific type of microplastic found in most items are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic which are easily washed down drains and, eventually, end up in the sea. The goods they are used in means that they are almost always washed down sinks which leads them to the sea.

flickr | Jacek.NLIn fact, during this year’s Volvo Ocean Race, which is a sporting competition involving sailing around the world, microplastics were found in the most remote areas of the oceans. ‘Turn the Tide on Plastics’, an organisation that has been tirelessly campaigning to protect the oceans, took samples along the way and found that within one of deepest and inaccessible trenches, the Mariana Trench, they were microplastics in abundance. It requires specialist equipment to even extract small samples form the area and cannot directly be accessed by divers due to the pressure. Even an area in the South Indian Ocean that is completely devoid of human activity was found to be saturated in microplastics.

What is the Problem?

Although microplastics are widespread in cosmetics and toiletries, they are also used in several other industries. The production of tyres for vehicles contains and emits the small fragments of plastic and the same goes for the clothing industry… and so what?

flickr | Oregon State UniversityWell, they pose problems for many reasons. According to a recent study cited by The Guardian, “more than 8m tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. Recent research has shown that billions of pieces of plastic are snagged on coral reefs, sending disease rates soaring”.  Microplastics and microbeads in particular, have been found embedded in the digestive tracts of many marine animals, entering their tissues through respiration and ingestion. One of the worst problems is having microplastics embedding themselves into bottom-feeder and primary food sources such as plankton. Crabs from the Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the ocean, were found to contain 50 times higher toxicity levels than crabs from even the most polluted waterways in China. It’s not just animals; primary reef-building corals are also found to actually ingest the minuscule bits of toxic plastic. This inevitably spreads toxic chemicals into almost all life within the sea. Humans are also affected when they consume fish. That’s right, if you eat fish, you eat microplastics and what has been sample is believed to represent only 1% of plastics in the sea. Needless to add, plastics are non-biodegradable. They pollute the earth pretty much forever.

flickr | Emilian Robert VicolThe UK recently established one of the most important bans regarding microplastics. A microbead ban has been implemented, meaning that toiletries and personal care items are no longer allowed to use them and all microbead products must cease to be on sale by June 30 2018. Plastics are literally choking our oceans and it is estimated that in total, there are five TRILLION pieces of plastic floating around in the sea and one efficient way to tackle this is targeting and stopping the use of microplastics.

By Hanna-Johara Dokal - Online Journalism Intern

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