Microplastics – how can something so small be such a big issue?

Microplastics.

This is very much the buzzword of environmental news at the moment.

A word which has been on almost every front page of every newspaper, a key topic of political debate, and a crucial influence in the rise of ‘zero-waste’ lifestyles. However, scientists have known about microplastics for years, and newspapers began regularly publishing articles on them in 2014. So why is the topic suddenly everywhere you look? Because there are more microplastics than ever before – and the volume of microplastics is continuing to grow.

But why are they a problem?

To understand why microplastics are an issue, we must first establish what exactly microplastics are. When you first think about microplastics, your mind often jumps straight to plastic pollution. Plastic is everywhere – wrapping up bananas, holding our weekly shopping, and covering vast areas of our oceans.

Guardian graphic plastic

This graphic shows where the weight by size of the plastic polluting oceans across the world, with Red indicating the heaviest pollution, and Green colours indicating the lightest.

Plastic pollution was a big issue several years ago, prompting plastic bags to be banned in some countries [1], a reduction in the amount of plastic packaging used by some supermarkets [2], and the rise of now famous change-makers including ‘Trash is for Tossers’. So why is it still coming up now?

Recently, scientists became aware of microplastics. Although some plastics already qualify as microplastics (e.g. microbeads [3]), when all plastics break down and disintegrate, they create tiny pieces of plastic which are smaller than 0.5cm [4].

This means plastic pollution isn’t just something we can see – plastic pollution has become microscopic, and this makes it incredibly difficult to deal with.

These tiny pieces of plastic have been found in a variety of water sources, not just the ocean. They have been found in lakes and rivers [5], water from our taps [6], and bottled water [7]. As microplastics are so small, it is incredibly difficult to effectively remove them from our water sources. Not only this, but they have also reached into the food chains – microplastics have been found in fish found on sea beds across the world [8], and now even in the animals which eat the fish. Microplastics have infiltrated the food webs of The Great Lakes in Michigan [9], and if these animals are found to have ingested microplastics from fish, what does that mean for humans?

Simply by eating and drinking, we are all unknowingly ingesting microplastics. Although the health impacts of this are currently unknown [10], as more plastic is produced, more water bodies will begin to contain microplastics – meaning more microplastics will indirectly end up in our food and drink.

So what can we do to stop this?

  1. Invest in a reusable water bottle and coffee cup

This will not only reduce the amount of plastic being produced, but may even get you a discount on your coffee in some retailers (like Pret a Manger)!

  1. Take your lunch with you in a metal container or a Tupperware

Again, this could end up saving you money as well as the planet! By not buying a sandwich wrapped in plastic from the supermarket, you can not only reduce your plastic consumption significantly, but also your carbon footprint!

 

  1. Spread the word!

Share what you know about microplastics – if it comes up in conversation, explain why it is such a big issue! The more people who reduce their plastic consumption, the less microplastics will end up in our food and drink in the future! Every little helps.

 

By Emma

 

References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/28/kenya-brings-in-worlds-toughest-plastic-bag-ban-four-years-jail-or-40000-fine

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/plastic-planet-packaging-free-supermarket-ekoplaza-amsterdam-netherlands-recycling-pollution-a8232101.html

[3] https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/what-are-plastic-microbeads-and-why-should-we-ban-them-20160114/

[4] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/podcast/june16/dd66-microplastics.html

[5] https://phys.org/news/2018-04-oceansmicroplastics-pollute-rivers-lakes.html

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/15/microplastics-found-in-more-than-90-of-bottled-water-study-says

[8] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/plastic-found-in-75-per-cent-of-deep-ocean-fish-807rwpj0p

[9] http://www.iiseagrant.org/newsroom/microfibers-are-in-the-food-web-in-three-lake-michigan-rivers/

[10] http://metro.co.uk/2018/03/15/microplastic-can-harmful-7389101/

Image References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/10/full-scale-plastic-worlds-oceans-revealed-first-time-pollution

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