Microplastic and its Impact
In several posts since 2013, I have written about the overwhelming amount of plastic in our seas that contaminates the water and endangers ocean species. (see Plastic, Plastic Everywhere and A Global Ocean Tragedy, for example) In this update to the previous pieces, I would like to highlight a February 1, 2017 article in Scientific American entitled, “Sea Unworthy: A Personal Journey into the Pacific Garbage Patch,” by Erica Cirino. In her record of her 23-day experience with environmental scientists on a Danish research vessel traveling through what is known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch, she confirms the existence of microplastic at a much greater depth than was previously hypothesized, potentially increasing the current estimates of 165 million tons of plastic in the oceans to significantly more than that.
What is microplastic? Microplastic is the category of plastic representing the smallest and most toxic pieces in the seas, much of which is too tiny to be seen without magnification. The vast amounts of plastic produced on land reaches the oceans as a result of wind, dumping and run-off from rivers and streams. As they break into little pieces from the constant motion of the waves and are exposed to UV radiation, larger pieces of plastic become smaller and smaller.
Fish eat large quantities of microplastic, which they confuse with plankton, their normal source of food. As Danish scientist, Kristin Syberb, described, “It’s the smallest fish that eat the most plastic and become toxic. Then the middle-sized fish eat those smallest fish and become a little more toxic. Then the larger fish eat those middle-sized fish and become even more toxic. And then we eat the largest fish…”
Although there has yet to be a study measuring the levels and impact of plastic in human beings, scientists do know that plastic causes abnormalities in fish, resulting in reduced size and death. Noting the serverity of the problem, the article’s author further relates how “scientists now predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.”
All is not lost, however. Significant efforts are being made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and numerous non-profits, in the form of grants and programs, for education on the plastics problems, cleanup, prevention and research. The goal is to involve and engage large segments of the population around the world to reverse this horrendous, man-made problem.