Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Scientists have warned we are creating a "plastic planet"(Leahy).
420,000,000 tons of plastic were produced in 2015.
15 - 52 trillion Microplastic particles estimated to be in the ocean.
92% of all plastic items found at sea are generally smaller than 5 mm.
Microplastic pollution has become a significant problem across the world and will only worsen without a solution. As plastic continues being produced, the quantity of microplastics directly increases. This post aims to educate you on the problem, effects, origins, and solutions of microplastics.
"Microplastics are ubiquitous, having contaminated the most remote places of the world... they can be found in tap water and inside marine mammals and fish." This quote only begins to describe the dangers of microplastics.
The sheer quantity of them is another issue itself; scientists recorded a daily rate of 365 microplastic particles per square meter falling from the sky in the Pyrenees Mountains (Leahy). The majority of ocean plastic pollution is microplastics. Preventing microplastics from polluting freshwater and saltwater ecosystems is a tricky subject because they are not always traceable. For example, they have been found in both the Mariana Trench and French Pyrenees Mountains, and scientists don't know how this is possible. A study conducted in Japan used tracers to identify them in road dust; however, this is not practical universally. The essential concepts to understand are the leading causes and how we can prevent microplastics' diffusion into our water.
Effects of Microplastics on Environment, Marine Life, and Humans
More than 8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean yearly. Together, the three best major international ocean clean-ups deal with < 0.5% of this pollution. If we fail to act by 2040: there will be 2x more plastic use, 3x the amount of plastic going in the ocean, 4x more plastic stock in the sea (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). The surfaces of microplastics can carry disease-causing organisms and affect the quality of the soil. This is a problem for all living things because microplastics move up the food chain through consumption. Organisms consume microplastics within the animals they eat and water they drink, leading to bioaccumulation inside us, inside fish, and inside animals. This is particularly dangerous to humans because various health problems occur from ingesting plastic, and research determined humans consume almost 100k particles per year. We consume plastic by eating other animals and in our water. Not to mention, these plastic particles absorb pollutants referred to as POPs: Persistent Organic Pollutants, which are dangerous to the environment, marine life, and humans. They are named persistent because their concentration increases from the bottom to top of the food chain. The phenomenon is known as biomagnification.
What Causes Microplastics in the Ocean?
Microplastics' primary origins are large plastic items, tires, cars, and roads, pellets, laundry. Big plastic items, like water bottles and bags, eventually break down into microplastics. Tires are made of plastic, and the friction created when driving causes tiny pieces to break off. Car braking systems also release microplastics, as does the paint on roads. When washed, tiny fibers break off our clothes and then make their way into our water system because, currently, there is no filter implemented in our water filtration systems to remove them. Aside from the laundry microplastics, runoff carries the particles into oceans, rivers, and other water bodies resulting in plastic rain.
Types of Microplastics
It has been said there are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are intentional, like microbeads. Whereas secondary microplastics are unintentional and come from a "parent."
However, others will break microplastics down into five specific categories. Here is an excellent graphic demonstrating the five microplastics: fragments, fibers, foam, nurdles, and microbeads. Each type comes from different sources, as explained below. Although some types have additional sources, like fibers break off anything made from synthetic fiber, like cigarettes, which are the most commonly littered item. Therefore, making recycling even more essential for them. Fortunately, microbeads bans are increasing in various countries, which will prevent them from entering our waterways.
(Image via Lake Ontario Waterkeeper)
While there are minimal solutions to preventing microplastics from entering our oceans, rivers, and lakes, I'm going to address those that do exist!
First and most importantly, follow the 5 R's: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle. Second, take action, starting with your laundry. Third, demand your local government take action
How to Reduce Microplastics from Laundry
Since laundry accounts for about 30% of microplastics, it's important to limit the number of times you wash your clothes and implement a solution to help catch fibers. There are two methods I've discovered on how to accomplish this: Guppyfriend and Cora Ball. The Guppyfriend bag is essentially a washing bag that prevents microfibers from escaping, while not shedding any fibers itself.
The Cora Ball goes into the washing machine with your clothes and catches the fibers. Both are sold at EarthHero.com, where you can use my affiliate link to order and my coupon code DRAGUN10 to receive a discount! They have both been proven effective at catching microplastics, but unfortunately, neither company has found a method to recycle the collected plastic. I hope that either these companies will find a solution or TerraCycle will prevent the plastic from going to landfills. Although, please don't forget that sending the plastic to landfills is still better than sending it to our water!
Action the Government can Take
Local governments can implement multiple solutions to prevent microplastics from entering our water. Gully pots are essentially roadside buckets and are estimated to be 80% effective if emptied regularly. Porous asphalt is also capable of catching particles to be later collected. Street sweeping is also effective at removing microplastics from our roads. Lastly, there are two methods to remove particles from water. The first is an extraction process developed by a teenager from Ireland that uses water, oil, and magnetite powder to form a ferrofluid that attracts plastics. Then you can use a magnet to remove both the plastic and ferrofluids from the water. The second method is a new plastic-corralling system designed by researchers in Japan using a piezoelectric device that converts electricity into mechanical vibrations—to apply vibrating sound waves to a thin channel of wastewater containing plastic microbeads and microfibers. The waves make the plastic particles gather in the center. Then the channel splits into three, with plastics going down the middle to be collected and clean water down the two sides. In lab tests, the system captured 95 percent of polyethylene fibers and 99 percent of Nylon fibers. One downside is that the process is slow, but if made faster, a device like this could be integrated into washing machine drains to filter out microplastics
Resources & Sources
https://www.nccoast.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Microplastic-Fact-Sheet-for-web3.pdf - Microplastic Fact Sheet
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLjxhH79zzc- roadside gully cleaning UK