Microplastics in Our Oceans

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The effect of plastic pollution on our oceans could be even worse than we originally thought – and possibly even worse than we can see.

Whilst some pollution problems have now become common knowledge (such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), scientists have recently discovered that there may be far more to the problem than originally thought. Many people, and especially those of us committed to preserving our underwater heritage, are already aware of the problem that plastic poses to our oceans, but there’s a whole new problem that has scientists seriously worried – the problem of microplastic in our oceans.

Generally speaking, plastic is a major threat to marine animals – whether they get caught and entangled in it or accidentally consume it – there’s no doubt that plastic already has a massive impact on the underwater environment. Humans need to remember that plastics consumed by small marine animals will eventually end up in our food as larger animals eat the smaller ones and so the process continues. Also, as plastics degrade they release harmful toxins into the water which can harm the marine life and in turn harm humans.

What The Scientists Discovered

Researchers from Denmark have recently published the results of their latest research project in a Marine Pollution Bulletin. Through this study, the researchers from the Aqua Faculty at the Danish Technological University are now able to detect and measure plastic in much smaller measurements than ever before. Before the study, the smallest debris that scientists could measure was 0.3 millimeters, whereas this new study has allowed scientists to detect and measure plastic as small as 1/100 of a millimeter, now identifiable as microplastic. The studies were conducted back in 2004 and involved taking samples from water at varying depths up to 20 feet. A number of areas were tested from the eastern coast of the United States to the Sargasso Sea. The average findings were that in every 2 litres of water, at least one item of plastic was found. Unfortunately this number greatly increases when testing areas close to the shore.

What Does This Mean for Our Oceans (and for us)?

Although these new and improved measuring techniques are a step in the right direction in terms of scientific accuracy, the results that have come from these latest findings are certainly very worrying indeed. Torkel Gissel Nielsen, a professor at DTU, has said of the new techniques, “… a whole new picture emerges. Suddenly you see just how ubiquitous plastic is in the oceans. It’s really quite scary.”

One of the major problems with microplastic is that it is so small that even the smallest of marine animals is able to ingest it, adding this extremely harmful element to the food chain that eventually reaches us humans. In fact, plastic is even being absorbed by the tiniest of planktons as a DTU research assistant explains, “because of this, it is realistic to assume that [plastics] have already entered the marine food chain.”

Unfortunately for us (and the marine life ingesting this microplastic) is that there’s far more to the problem than just the plastic. Professor Nielsen explains: “A range of other chemicals that find their way into the oceans are able to bind with the plastic. This includes oils, brominated flame retardants and phthalates (such as BPA), used as softening agents in plastic products. That way, microplastic can become little, chemical missiles.”

What Can We Do To Help?

Microplastic takes many forms and even the tiny plastic beads that serve as cosmetic exfoliators will eventually reach our oceans. There is still hope, however, as there are precautionary actions that we as individuals can take to help reduce the problem of microplastic in our oceans. First off, make a concerted effort not to use plastic items or products that are only single-use, and when you do have to use plastic items, make sure they will be properly recycled. Secondly, don’t buy any products that make use of microbeads. The state of California has recently announced that it will be banning plastic exfoliator usage in all beauty products starting in the year 2020, something that we as ocean enthusiasts hope will soon be copied by other nations.

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