A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Microplastics in the Ocean

By Nickie Polson, posted in Canada.com February 17, 2012

When we think of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, most of us imagine floating masses of plastic bags, or heaps of bottles washing up on beaches. But that might be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Most plastics don't decompose the way other organic materials do. When natural organics decompose, they break down into new compounds that are useful to natural cycles. When plastics break down, they tend to simply become smaller and smaller fragments of plastic.

In fact, they can become so small that we can't see them any more unless we look very carefully. But that doesn't mean that they aren't a problem.

The world's beaches are collecting more and more plastic.

Even in the tropical paradise of Hawaii - far from the world's factories - plastic is changing the beaches. The visible plastic we have come to expect can easily be cleaned up - toothbrushes, shoes, bottles, bags, and the like. But in actual fact, even that process of cleaning up is not easy because the wind and waves will bring in another load the next day.

Taking a closer look at a Hawaiian sand beach may reveal another plastic pollution issue - nurdles. These are the tiny plastic pellets used as the raw material for manufacturing plastic goods.

More than 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped around the world each year. They escape from ships, factories and port facilities and wind up on beaches everywhere. Five years ago, Greenpeace estimated that 10 per cent of plastic debris on beaches was nurdles.

Removing nurdles from a beach seems to be close to impossible. Tiny balls of white plastic are not easy to pick up.

But they are not the worst of it. Digging farther into the sand, one can find countless tiny specks of plastic that are the remains of plastic items beaten up by the waves. Some beaches are said to be more plastic than sand.

Even a beach that looks clean may have up to 5,000 plastic bits in a litre of sand.

But that is still not the end of it. Perhaps the most disturbing are the plastic fibres that are too small to be seen with the human eye. Fragments of plastic smaller than the width of a human hair contaminate surface waters and shoreline habitats worldwide, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology last year.

Researchers sampled 18 sites representing six continents from the poles to the equator. Every site showed some level of this microplastic fibre pollution.

Where do these fibres come from? It turns out the microplastic fibres found in ocean sediments contained polyester and acrylic fibres in the same proportion that is found in sewage discharge.

And where do those fibres in sewage come from? Possibly, probably, from our washing machines. Researchers found that a single garment in a household washing machine can lose nearly 2,000 fibres per wash. The worst offender is the fabric we have grown to love - fleece.

Which leaves us in a dilemma. What's a caring individual to do? Throw away our fleece? Stop washing our clothes? On the individual level, this is not something we can easily resolve.

The question is now posed to clothing manufacturers, washing machine makers and those who run sewage treatment plants. Can they figure out how to somehow filter out these tiny plastic fibres so they do not make it to the sea?

But the bigger question that begs for an answer is how much trouble are we in with all these tiny bits of plastic getting out into the world's oceans?

There is plenty of evidence for plastic bits of various sizes betting into the digestive systems of creatures and plugging them up. Birds, turtles, fish, dolphins and others suffer for our plastic spillage.

Plastic as 'food' is happening at the microscopic level too. Certain bacteria are eating the plastic bits. A recent study coming out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution finds that some marine bacteria are actually eating the tiny bits of plastic.

Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. Researchers now want to know if the digestion produces harmless byproducts or whether it puts poisons into the food chain.

They also want to know more about these particular bacteria. They are different from the bacteria normally found in seawater or on seaweed. In fact, some of them are similar to cholera bacteria.

We have more questions than we have answers. While we wait for those answers, we must carefully consider our use of plastics.

nickiepolson@shaw.ca

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