How big is the problem
More than 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, with 7 billion tons ending as waste, in the form of microplastics. They originate mostly from packages and drink bottles and break up into tiny pieces in the environment. According to estimations, if this continues the world will end up with 13 billion tons of microplastics by 2050.
Even though they have been found in a variety of marine species, because of their small size, the problem they are causing is not getting the consideration it should. Recently, the world has begun looking on this matter as plastic microbeads were found in personal care products such as shower gel, and toothpaste. In fact, 4,360 tons of microbeads were used all over European Union countries in that year alone. Furthermore, in the US alone eight trillion microbeads are entering aquatic environments every day.
Now, taking a deeper look at ocean pollution, it comes as no surprise that microplastics can amount to 93-236 thousand tons floating in the water. What must concern us more although, is that this amount is 37 times greater, than estimations and studies have predicted. This is an indication that tiny plastics are abundant both in marine and land environments, affecting marine life and humans as well.
These tiny pieces -no bigger than a human hair- can be proven extremely harmful to the environment, especially when ingested by animals. Specifically, they produce chemicals and contaminants, which if they are absorbed by animals when they eat them, they can affect their health and their behaviour.
A research published in the journal Environmental Pollution notes that microplastics can move up through the food chain, from fish to mammals, raising serious concerns about human health. In fact, microplastics have already been found in seafood like shellfish, which humans consume, thus increasing the need to mitigate this problem.
- Microplastics could contribute up to 30% of the 'plastic soup' polluting the world's oceans.
- In some areas, microplastics already outnumber plankton by six to one.
- Microplastics are found in 90% of bottled water.
- Manchester river recently reported the worst level of microplastic pollution ever recorded.
- 8,000 tons of microplastics are generated in Norway. If this amount was to be dumped on a city, people would be knee-deep in tiny plastics.
- The biggest sources are synthetic clothing and dust from tyres.
- 75% of the microplastics are found on bottles, plastic bags, and fishing gear.
- Microplastics are also airborne and settle in large quantities in urban environments.
Where can they be detected?
According to a study, published by Marcus Eriksen from Five Gyres Institute and colleagues, large plastics appear more near coastlines, degrading into microplastics in the 5 subtropical gyres, and the smallest microplastics are present in more remote regions, such as the subpolar gyres. The distribution of the smallest microplastics in remote regions of the ocean may suggest that gyres act as 'shredders' of large plastic items into microplastics, after which they eject them across the ocean.
However, there are 5 countries that amount for 60% of microplastics pollution in the seas. These are:
Is there a solution?
An effective wastewater treatment can remove a large amount of microplastics from the oceans, efficiently.
However, there are more simple solutions to eliminate this problem. These solutions are numerous, easy and it's completely up to us whether to implement them or not:
- Stricter regulations to track how waste plastics are processed, in order to prevent microplastics enter the ecosystem.
- Methods to filter microplastics can also contribute.
- Reducing microplastic waste can tackle this problem, something that we all can do.
- Choose products that don't contain microplastic beads. There are many, organic recipes for exfoliators that can replace store bought varieties.
- Use products that can be recycled.
- Use soap bars instead of liquid gel.
- Use more glass products.