When it comes to the environment, tiny things matter. It’s strange to imagine that one of the biggest threats to the planet may, in fact, be almost invisible to the naked eye, and yet that’s never been more apparent than in the case of microplastics. These tiny plastic particles come from a diverse array of sources and can be less than a millimeter in size—about the size of a sesame seed.
These hazardous little bits of plastic can appear in unexpected places, often turning up where you would least expect them. While you may not think household items like toothpaste or body wash contain plastic, beauty products are often made with plastic microbeads to enhance their cleaning or scrubbing effect. For around 50 years ago, microbeads have been increasingly added to various cleansers, exfoliants, cosmetics, and health products in lieu of natural ingredients and are often not even detected by consumers.
In addition, microplastics are produced when larger plastic items break down over time into smaller particles. They also encompass the teeny synthetic fibers that “shed” from certain types of clothing. These types of microfibers can comprise a significant portion of these garments, and according to the Plastic Soup Foundation, about 4,500 microfibers per gram of clothing can be released during just one wash in the laundry. When combined with the microplastics coming from other sources, the overall amount is staggering.
In 2010, some 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean, according to research published in the journal Science. To make matters even more alarming, a recent 2015 study from Environmental Science and Technology found that 8 trillion microbeads were entering aquatic landscapes throughout the US every single day. Another example of the microplastic pollution problem is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By now, most people have heard of the patch, but they may not realize that it primarily is made up of microplastics floating near the surface—not cans, bottles, or other large pieces of junk.
The nearly incomprehensible amount of microplastics in our oceans has a significant impact. Fish and other animals mistake the tiny particles for food and eat them, leading to a range of ill effects. Studies have shown that crustaceans and oysters that consume microplastics have more difficulties with reproduction, due to the chemicals present in the tiny particles. In addition, the chemicals may accumulate in these organisms and, in turn, the species that eat them, potentially affecting the entire food chain. In addition, a 2016 study showed that microplastics can kill fish, stunt their growth, and even alter their behavior in ways that threaten their survival.
Microplastic pollution can have economic repercussions as well—by posing a threat to so many ocean species, it harms the tourism industry in island nations and coastal areas that depend on healthy, flourishing marine ecosystems to draw visitors to their shores. The commercial fishing and aquaculture industries can also be negatively impacted by microplastic pollution.
Steps toward Solutions
Once we become aware of how pervasive these plastics have become, we can move to the heart of how to prevent them from permanently gumming up the landscape and creating an ecological disaster. Some say it’s too late, but others say there’s still a chance to neutralize the threat. A positive development came in 2015 in the form of the US Microbead-Free Waters Act. Signed into law by President Obama, the act bans the production and sale of cosmetic and other personal care products that contain microbeads. The act does not address microplastics from other sources—like plastic waste that degrades over time, or microfibers from clothing—but it is encouraging all the same.
Experts tend to agree that capturing plastic detritus before it makes its way into the ocean is essential to effectively addressing the problem. The material simply must be stopped from entering waterways and reaching the larger environment. Spending time and money to develop means of catching microplastics could yield significant results. Possible solutions might include a nanoball that people could place in their washing machine to catch microfibers that shed from clothing. Improving fabric quality or coating fabrics with an anti-shed treatment could also reduce microfiber pollution.
In addition, better waste management strategies are key to solving the problem—particularly in the five countries that are responsible for 60% of the plastic in the ocean: China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These countries’ economies are growing fast, average incomes are increasing, and their use of plastic is skyrocketing as people adopt Western lifestyle habits. However, these countries also have less developed waste management systems, and people often discard their trash in informal, unmanaged landfills that fail to keep waste secure. For these reasons, improving waste collection and oversight of landfills could go a long way toward reducing microplastic pollution.