Plastic is one of the most common and well used materials in the world, but much of it ends up in our oceans as microplastics, or tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in length. With plastic production consistently rising every year, plastic pollution has reached a global scale of concern for environmental protection in light of human development for the future.
Found in even the most remote and uncharted regions of the oceans, microplastics are usually formed by larger plastic debris that break off into smaller and smaller bits over time. Due to their size, these miniscule pieces pass through waterways and water filtration systems and end up in our lakes and oceans (Ocean Service). Most microplastics enter the ocean through floods that occur mainly in parts of North America and Asia. These floods carry in billions of pieces that end up entangled in plants and devoured by fish and other ocean life (The Guardian).
As a substance that is made to withstand many years, plastic does not biodegrade quickly nor easily. Regular plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose while plastic bottles or bags can take anywhere from 10 to 1000 years (The Balance). However, 90% of the plastic in our oceans is derived from microbeads, which are tiny plastic beads used in personal care products. Albeit small, the particles can accumulate to anywhere from 93 to 236 thousand tons, according to a research study by Environmental Research Letters. Additionally, a study by Environmental Science & Technology in 2015 shows that nearly 8 trillion microbeads enter aquatic environments every day (National Geographic).
After River Tame, a small river near Manchester, England was found to contain almost 500,000 microplastics, researchers concluded that the approximated 5 trillion particles is a major underestimate for the actual amount of microplastics in our oceans (The Guardian). However, research in the ocean accounts only for 1% out of the total, and with the constant use of plastic, the number is increasing everyday. As a result, although plastic pollution has been around for a few decades, little is known about it, and the general public is still unaware of the damage it can have on ocean life and even our health.
Microplastics are often mistaken by marine life and birds as food. In Indonesia and California, microplastics were found in almost every single fish that was being sold in the markets (Metro). Many microplastics are also ingested by oysters, which has shown major repercussions in other organisms that consume them (National Geographic). The plastics have been found filled in stomachs of dead seabirds and snagged in coral reefs, sending disease rates among organisms skyrocketing.
While wildlife is important, microplastics also have a direct effect to our health. Whether it be through seafood or tap water, the microplastics also enter our system, and the pieces can even become lodged in the membranes in our organs and bloodstream (The Guardian). The tiny particles can amass toxic chemicals and kill irreplaceable cells, inflicting potential damage to our protein or DNA (CNN). Although further research has not yet been conducted, it is confirmed that the microplastics can have disastrous impact to our health. For now, there’s not much we can do to reduce the severity of this ongoing problem, but we can always make an effort to reuse and recycle the products we use.
Joyce Kim, Grade 9
La Canada High School