Ever since the footage from Blue Planet II hit our screens, there has been a growing awareness of the devastating impact of plastic on the marine environment. Anyone who has taken part in any of the Great British Beach Cleans organised by Marine Conservation Society volunteers will have already know much of the debris collected every year is plastic, from fish crates to drinks bottles, rope to the cotton bud sticks with cigarette butts thrown in for good measure. Whilst the MCS encourage volunteers to collect every item in a 100 metre stretch for their survey work, its certain that there are some plastic particles that are just too small to be picked up. These are the microplastics.
Microplastics are particles less than 5mm in size, ranging down to 5μm. That’s the Greek letter mu which represents micrometers, one million times smaller than a metre, a thousand times smaller than a millimetre. This size range is why these particles are called microplastics. Microplastics are not as easy to count. A collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and a charity called Just One Ocean is running a scheme to encourage people to survey their beaches for microplastics. There’s a carefully designed citizen science method to allow data from around the UK shores to be submitted and collated. We don’t fully understand the scale of the problem yet, but scientists from a number of disciplines are expressing concerns that it’s much larger than anyone suspected.
Microplastics have many sources. Large plastic pieces tumbling around in the marine environment will gradually break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Washing synthetic clothes in a washing machine releases microfibres into the waste water. If you run a tumble dryer you will know that you have to clear out the lint from it. That is just the larger fibres that get trapped. Smaller particles will enter the air blown out from the dryer. Microplastics have been found in the air, soil and water across the world. Since the 1960s, plastic particles were deliberately put into toothpastes and body care products as microbeads. They helped scrub the plaque off your teeth or acted as an abrasive layer to remove dead skin in facial scrubs. Those plastic beads were useful for about 2 minutes (because we all brush for the recommended time don’t we?) and when you rinsed and spat, those plastic beads were set free on the world. And the chances are they will exist long after you have gone.
We also find microplastics in food and bottled drinks. Filter feeding marine life picks up the particles from the environment. Mussels tested from 8 locations round the UK and samples bought from 8 UK supermarkets were all found to contain 70 microplastic particles per 100g of meat. Beer, honey and sea salt have also been shown to be good sources. Some studies have shown that over 80% of tap water samples contained microplastic and bottled water was even worse. One sample of bottled water had over 10,000 plastic particles in a litre. Science has a funny way of examining such issues, they’ve even looked at human faeces to gauge the levels that we are consuming. They found 20 microplastic particles for every 10g of stool sample.
So, what’s the big issue? Indestructible little bits of plastic that are so small you can’t see them with the naked eye? And they obviously pass through your intestine because they are too big to be absorbed. Why should anyone care? And to a certain extent we don’t fully know yet – and that may be the scariest aspect of this story.
When plastics are made, they aren’t a pure substance. Thousands of different chemical additives can be thrown into the recipe to manipulate the properties of the plastic. As large plastics breakdown, these additives are released. The other concern is that microplastics are very good at adsorbing (not absorbing) certain chemicals onto their surface. You might have heard of a few of these; PCBs, PAHs and DDT are on the detected list. We’re reasonably certain that probably 90% or more of the plastic microparticles that you’ve ingested have passed through your intestinal tract. But what scientists cannot quantify yet is whether they transferred damaging levels of toxins to you on the way. The data so far suggests possible disruption of your gut microbiome and inflammation. The consequences of long term repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals carried by the microplastics is still being assessed. It doesn’t bode well. We know from other species how devastating persistent organic pollutants can be.
There are estimated to have been 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic made since the 1960s, of which over 4.9 billion metric tonnes has been discarded into the environment. This is a problem that will not be easily solved and we are all at risk.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.