From the land of urban city-dwellers to the deep dark ocean bed, plastic pollution is a hot topic, but we still don’t fully understand the complexity to which plastic impacts our environment, and health.
We are all aware of plastic bottle and straw littered beaches, and perhaps we’ve heard of the huge Pacific garbage patch. But what about the 99% of all plastic that’s not seen? Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments less than 5mm in width, which easily wash out from synthetic clothing as microfibres, break off from larger plastic pollutants or are made by deliberate design for cosmetic/domestic use. These ragged fragments have been found to harbour toxins, become ingested by fish and are now a growing concern for human health.
Once washed into the sea, microplastics are transported by ocean currents and make their way down to the seabed. A new research study by Dr Ian Kane found that powerful deep ocean currents can create underwater ‘microplastic hotspots’ just like surface currents move floating debris into garbage patches above the waves. The study found 1.9 million pieces of microplastic accumulated in just one metre square, the highest level recorded on the sea floor. These driving currents are also what delivers essential oxygenated water and nutrients to benthic communities, so it is likely that microplastic hotspots overlap with ecological hotspots too, where they can be absorbed or consumed by marine life, adding pressure to important areas.
As humans, microplastics enter us through the food we eat, tapped and bottled water we drink and air we breathe. The impact of marine microplastic on humans is not fully understood due to the ethics behind asking humans to eat plastic, and the different context plastics can be ingested in. According to national geographic, “scientists remain concerned about the human-health impacts of marine plastics because, again, they are ubiquitous and they eventually will degrade and fragment into nanoplastics, which measure less than 100 billionths of a meter—in other words, they are invisible. Alarmingly, these tiny plastics can penetrate cells and move into tissues and organs. But because researchers lack analytical methods to identify nanoplastics in food, they don’t have any data on their occurrence or absorption by humans.”
Tiny pieces of plastic are creating huge global problem. We need to stop the 9 million metric tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year at its source. Be part of the solution, start by taking little steps to reduce your plastic use. Check out WWF’s 10 tips to reduce your plastic footprint.
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