Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm long. According to the National Ocean Service, “plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean and Great Lakes.” Microplastics have several known origins. At times a large piece of plastic will break down over time, and in other instances microbeads, a type of microplastic, are contained within beauty products such as toothpaste and facial wash.
One of the difficulties with microplastics in the ocean is that unlike floating bottles and bags, microplastics are so small that they are like confetti, and almost impossible to clean up.
What is the Affect of Microplastics in the Environment?
According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), microplastics can be found in “most habitats on Earth as well as in the digestive tracts of many marine organisms and seabirds.” National Geographic has estimated that 90 percent of seabirds consume plastic and over eight million tons of new plastic trash is found in the ocean each year.
Scientists are working to learn more about microplastics and their effect on the environment. They conduct standardized tests in the field and laboratory but it’s still an emerging field of study.
Current studies have shown that aquatic life is affected when these small particles flow through water filtration and into the lakes and oceans. Even though microbeads have been around for about 50 years, many were not aware of the dangers before this decade.
The danger in using microbeads comes when they go down the household drain, through the filtration system of the water treatment facilities, and into our ocean and lakes where they can absorb toxic chemicals and be ingested by aquatic life forms.
In December 2015 President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which prohibits the making and introduction of intentionally added plastic microbeads. Although this was a positive step in the right direction, researchers believe that microbeads represent a small percentage of the total microplastic debris.
What Can We Do to Stop Microplastics?
Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters has conducted studies around marine microplastics. As a leading researcher in this area, he noted that microbeads are not the predominant form of microplastics:”Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash.” One course of action that Dr. Baker has noted could affect microplastics in the marine environment is to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the ocean.
A few of the actions mentioned by The Oceanic Society that are recommended for lessening ocean plastic pollution include recycling, reducing the use of single-use bags, participating in local cleanups, and avoiding microbeads.
Help Nature’s Academy Stop Microplastics
Our Citizen Science Program focuses on the increasing problems associated with microplastics. Students aided our efforts by taking and processing water samples, sediment samples and recording biodiversity data, as well as collecting and documenting marine debris in two separate locations. Find out more about microplastics and the big problem.