The amount of plastic that has accumulated over the past 60 years has been extensive. It is used so often due to its durability and cheap manufacturing processes, allowing large businesses to use it extensively. However, plastics convenience comes at a cost to the environment. Our intense consumption and rapid and inappropriate disposal processes have meant that our environment has had to pay the price.
There are high concentrations of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic but due to oceanic circulation sequences, we can assume that floating plastic can be found in all five subtropical gyres.
Surface water plastic is the most documented and researched issue today because it shows up on beaches and we see it regularly affecting the marine life in mammals, fish, and seabirds from ingestion or from choking.
What is Micro-Plastic?
What is less common however is the talk of microplastic, which also floats amongst the larger pieces of plastic. It dominates most of the surface water plastic pollution and it is smaller than 0.5mm in diameter.
Microplastic is resulted from breaking off from larger pieces of plastic over time. This is how plastic slowly degrades, by undergoing fragmentation, which is a consequence of mechanical breakdown from waves and photochemical processes initiated by UV-B light.
There have been studies showing how much microplastic is in the ocean and the extent of its occupancy but there is still so much we do not understand about the potential impacts it will have on our environment and marine life.
Microplastics are likely the most numerically abundant items of plastic debris in the ocean today, and their numbers will inevitably increase, in part due to large, single plastic items ultimately degrading into millions of microplastic pieces.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Open Science, suggested that surface water plastic accumulation was tens of thousands of tonnes less than expected, as well as, knowing that from historical time series of surface plastic concentration in fixed ocean regions, shows no increasing trends since the 1980’s, despite their increase in production and disposal.
The members of the study, therefore, acknowledged that more research into finding out where this missing plastic is going, an utmost important issue.
What studies are slowly discovering is that microplastics are ending up in the deep sea which is being described as acting as a ‘sink’ for microplastic.
In fact, it is not just a little bit of plastic ending up in the deep sea but studies have found 4 orders of magnitude of microplastic in these sinks than in surface waters.
You would think that because plastic is buoyant, it would not sink even if they are broken into many pieces. Typically, high-density plastics (e.g., polyvinyl chlorides, polyester) settle out of the water column, whereas low-density plastics (e.g., polyethylene, polystyrene) remain buoyant, although can be affected by freshwater inputs, storms, and biofilm formation which may result in vertical mixing.
Because of numerous studies on the whereabouts of microplastics, it has been realized that microplastics have invaded the marine environment to an extent that they are present throughout the all world’s oceans and now finding, including its depths.
And in these deep-sea depths, there are many diverse organisms in fragile habitats that have come into contact with human waste and have been found by a study, to ingest microplastics.
This really is one of humanity’s biggest mistakes.
Arctic Sea Ice Dangers
In addition to the deep sea, the first study of its kind conducted in 2009 and published in the Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, found plastic debris in the Arctic Sea Ice.
This was the first study of its kind in the Arctic and they were astonished at how much microplastic they found, ranging from 38 to 234 particles per cubic meter of ice.
This is several orders of magnitude greater than the microplastic found in the Atlantic waters north of Scotland or in waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
What these scientists are worried about is the release of these microplastics to the marine environment. Global warming has substantially increased the Arctics ice melting which will facilitate their release. The scientists, among others in this field, all state that they are concerned about how little they know in regards to the potential impacts microplastics are going to have as they continue to be released into our oceans.
As a point of interest, Rayon was the most found plastic, this is a plastic fiber commonly used in clothing and is released into the ocean when we wash our clothes.
Read More Here: Bamboo Clothing Brands – Are They Really Eco-Friendly?
Zooplankton Ingestion of Plastic
A study conducted in 2015 and published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology was used to help the world understand the potential dangers our environment is undergoing by observing zooplankton ingest microplastic: Whether they do, how, and if it affects them.
Zooplankton is at the bottom of the food chain, so they play a large part in the potential dispersal and transportation of harmful chemicals in the ocean via the food chain, affecting their predators, their own health and, reproduction.
From their study, they were able to confirm the ingestion of microplastics is feasible with zooplankton. The plastic chemicals that are ingested might be considered endocrine-disruptors, carcinogenic or toxic, with symptoms occurring in their growth, sexual reproduction, morbidity, and mortality.
Potential impacts zooplankton consuming plastic include:
- Reduced function and health of the individual,
- Trophic-transfer of contaminants to predators (moving up the food chain), and
- The egestion of fecal pellets containing microplastics.
Microplastics harm to marine life is likely going to increase due to plastics continually getting smaller and being able to be consumed by all marine life forms.
Unfortunately, we still do not know the size distributions, generation and degradation rates or the resulting effects on marine life it will have.
Although quantities can be low, the widespread incidence in some natural populations, together with evidence of potentially harmful effects, is cause for concern.
Again, more research is needed in plastic contamination and the extent of its impact.
What Can We Do To Help?
The moral of the story is that it is imperative for more research to be done in this sector; to find out how microplastic gets into the deep sea or the Arctic, and, the potential impacts it will have on the environment, marine life and our health.
We can help by discontinuing our single-use culture.
We have grown up in a world where it is okay to use things once and immediately throw it away. Extensive resources, chemicals, land and, water were used to make these products, therefore everything has an ecological footprint.
It is amazing to see so many brands working to provide us with eco-alternatives to almost anything! Our job as a consumer is to support them and tell them what we want.
After all, consumers have the power to make a change, that’s why it is important to remember your purchases, choices or actions DO make a difference.
You are being a part of a positive movement!
Thank you for reading this blog and please feel free to comment below your thoughts on this issue and what you think are great ways we can help.
The Earth Co.
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