Microplastics in our oceans

Emma Cripps , Co-Editor in chief


Pollution and climate change and their harmful effect on marine and terrestrial organisms are all things that the majority of people are aware of. But, unfortunately, we’re degrading our ecosystem in even more ways than we understand. According to the National Ocean Service, plastic is the most potent pollutant in our oceans and lakes. The horror we experience bearing witness to the plastic bags and bottles floating around is only representative of a fraction of the threat.

Microplastics exist throughout all of the world’s oceans. Although they received some attention recently because of the widespread use of products containing microbeads (tiny plastic spheres used in personal care products such as toothpastes and facial scrubs), there is still a disproportionately small amount of recognition of the problem. Microbeads are a large contributor to this because of the sheer amount being released into the environment. According to a study done by Environmental Science and Technology, about 8 trillion microbeads are released into oceans daily in just the United States. Similarly, European Union countries alone emit about 4,360 tons of microbeads. Whether or not that sounds like a lot, it is enough to impact the marine animals. Microbeads are not the only source of microplastic pollution, though. When plastics are disposed of in the ocean, they break down into tiny pieces of no more than five millimeters long. From there, ocean currents carry them all around the world.

It might seem improbable that something so small could impact marine life in any significant way, but once these plastics are ingested by even one organism, the pieces themselves and the toxins contained within remain in the food chain. Besides the obvious issue of organisms’ inability to digest plastics, the plastics are also biomagnified in consumers. Biomagnification is when toxins become more concentrated as they go up the food chain. If toxins exist in an environment and enter the food chain through producers (photosynthetic organisms) in the soil, the primary consumers (those that eat plants) will then receive all of the toxins contained within the producers at a higher concentration because of increased consumption. This scientific principle is illustrated by the large concentration of mercury in tuna which can cause heavy metal poisoning when consumed in large quantities. This is relevant to the issue of microplastics because, according to National Geographic, harmful chemical such as DDT and BPA have been known to adhere to these. Therefore, when the microplastics are ingested, toxic chemicals are too.

There are already some projects that attempt to remove these microplastics from the ocean, but the easiest and most feasible solution is to minimize consumption of plastic. The best ways to do this are to completely avoid products containing microbeads, recycle plastic when possible, and reduce the use of non-recyclable plastics.