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Stories
War Against the Invisible - And What We Can Do

A WAR AGAINST THE INVISIBLE – MICROPLASTICS & 7 WAYS TO TACKLE THIS PROBLEM IN YOUR DAILY LIFE

​Plastic pollution in the ocean – a quick google search reveals what probably most people’s first guess would be when asked to think about plastic pollution in the ocean. We all know the photos of the floating bottles, shopping bags, ripped flip-flops and straws. These are the known villains in our fight against the plastic tide. 

 

The zero-waste movement, straw-free restaurants and the still fairly recent 5p charge for shopping bags in the UK are our well known and useful weapons against those villains and they seem to be effective. The in 2015 introduced 5p charge on plastic bags for example has reduced the usage of those bags by 85% (The Guardian, 2016). However, there are also other less obvious types of plastic pollution that should deserve perhaps even more or at least an equal role in this fight – microplastics.

 

Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5mm in length, about the size of a sesame seed (NOAA, 2017). Since they are less obvious way of pollution, they have often been overlooked and had a head start in this game since scientists and policy makers are only now catching up and recognizing their importance. Ironically enough, the effect of those smallest agents could have significant impacts especially on some of the biggest and charismatic shark species like the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus).

Basking sharks are filter feeders wich means they feed entirely on zooplankton near the water surface. It’s estimated that they can live up to 50 years. Both of these aspects of their life history make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of microplastic pollution. (If you want to find out more about them and their lifestyle check out this article by TFUI founder Melissa.)
This is because microplastics tend to accumulate at the surface, especially in areas where the water is relatively stationary or near sea shores. Unfortunately, these are also common foraging habitats for our basking sharks and their prey. It has been estimated that a 7m long basking shark can consume as much as 30.7kg of zooplankton in just one day! Therefore, basking sharks are at great risk of accumulating those microplastics throughout their lifetime. This can cause multiple problems for the shark. 

Firstly, microplastics have been shown to transport and contain persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances such as PCBs, which have caused for example damage to cells in the nervous system of other fish species. Secondly, toxic substances added to the plastic such as phthalates can leach from the microplastics into the environment. Those have also been shown to influence hormone levels in other vertebrates which can have serious consequences for reproduction and overall population levels. Lastly, the accumulation of microplastics in the tissue of the affected animal can also cause physical harm. Studies with accidentally caught basking sharks in the Mediterranean already showed the presence of toxic PCB substances in their tissues. 
 

WHERE DOES MICROPLASTIC COME FROM?

Microplastics come from a variety of sources. Some forms of microplastic are manufactured in their ‘micro’ size, whereas other microplastics come from the breakdown and slow degradation of bigger pieces of plastic. Examples of microplastics that are manufactured in ‘micro’ size include so called “nurdles”, which often act as the base material for industrial plastic production. However, microplastics are also commonly used in the cosmetic industry as exfoliants and can be found in some cleansers and toothpastes. Washing of synthetic clothing can also produced microplastic fibres, which are often not filtered out in wastewater treatment plants and so get to the ocean. So, big chance you actually got some of those secret agents hiding in your closet right now…

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THEM?

  1. Since microplastics can be produced by the degradation of bigger plastics, cutting down your overall plastic pollution is still one of the top ways to decrease your microplastic footprint. It’s estimated that our overall plastic footprint is still increasing and will be up for 680 kg per person per year by 2020 for the average European (Fossi, 2013). Online tools like this one from Greenpeace can help you calculate your plastic footprint and show you ways for cutting it down in your daily life.
  2. Let’s get to those secret agents in your closet! Washing your synthetic clothes is no problem if you use a specialised washing bag that captures those evil microfibers, like this one made by Guppyfriend.
  3. Don’t let it into your house – in the same way we have all the shopping guides for sustainable seafood, here’s one for microplastics. They have a great product list by country on their website to show you how you can go microplastic-free!
  4. Let’s get political – some countries, like the UK, have already taken political measures to ban the use of microplastics in cosmetic manufacturing. Here’s a great summary of the new ban and the proposed change it can bring. Maybe you can start a petition, get active and ask your government to do the same?
  5. Another type of beach cleanup – “The great nurdle hunt” even though many pieces of microplastics are almost invisible to us, there’s still a good chance for picking them up on the beach. A little different than the traditional type of beach cleanup – maybe give it a try? 
  6. Don’t buy glitter – it’s a shame, I know! Sparkles are fun, but a healthy ocean is better, so we might have to take one for the team here.
  7. Become a citizen scientist – there’s lots of great initiatives to spread the word & help map the extent of microplastics in our oceans such as this one.
Julia Jung is interested in how we can create sustainable projects for both, humans in rural communities and our oceans. She studies in Edinburgh, Scotland but commonly volunteers in India, Ethiopia, Kenya and Alaska. You can follow her travels on twitter @JJEduOcean or check out www.EarthTeamWork.com for technologies and ideas for sustainable development.  Julia is a member of the Rotary EClub of Upstate NY.
 
 
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