Small Plastics Causing Big Problems

Mackenzie Todd is a student in the Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy program at UNC Wilmington. She graduated from UNC Wilmington in 2016, with a B.S in Environmental Science. Having family near the coast, Mackenzie has always had a passion for the environment, specifically the ocean. Her research interests include marine debris, coastal policy and society’s values towards the coast.

According to toxicologists from Exeter University, “there are certain human environmental distresses so major that they are capable of destabilizing the earth’s normal function at a global scale”. These threats include the typical villains: climate change, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. In recent years, microplastics, the vast amount of discarded plastic waste accumulating in the oceans has emerged as a new global environmental threat.

Microplastics are particles with a diameter less than 1mm, which derive from progressive fragmentation of larger plastic items. They also are manufactured to be of small size, for use in personal care products, medicines and industry. They reach the seas through beach littering, road run-off, sewage, illegal dumping activities and self -care at home. Microplastics are widespread in marine waters, from deep ocean sediments to polar icecaps, a result of the estimated 8 million tons of plastic that enters the oceans each year.
Source: NPR
Microplastics are a cause for concern because they are the same size as many of the preferred foods ingested by animals at the base of the marine food web. Filter feeders such as mussels and oysters can readily ingest plastics and any chemicals they contain or have absorbed from seawater and many of these species are important to fisheries and perform vital ecosystem functions. Humans then eat the fish and filter feeders, leading to possible ingestion of those plastics and accompanying chemicals to humans. 

On a global scale, plastic items are an essential part of daily life: in transport, telecommunications, clothing, footwear and as packaging materials, facilitating the distribution of a wide range of food, drink and other goods. Plastics are inexpensive, strong, lightweight and durable materials with high thermal and electrical insulation properties. The diversity of polymers and the versatility of their properties are utilized to make products with a wide variety of medical and technological advances, energy savings and numerous other societal benefits.. There is also future potential for the application of plastics in novel medical discoveries and renewable energy. As a consequence, the production of plastics has increased dramatically over the last 60 years, from around 1.5 million metric tons to 335 million metric tons in 2016. 

Source: Horton et al (2017)
We often associate plastics as ‘one-trip’ items, which we accept for their convenience and sterility. Many plastic items have short lives that give us little opportunity to make strong relationships with them or much cause to reflect on them. This avalanche of ever-accumulating discarded plastic has put massive pressure on existing urban waste infrastructures and the natural environments where it often ends up. Standard economic and corporate analyses of this disturbing waste reality often dismiss it as an inevitable outcome of changed materials or irresponsible consumer practices. However, this dismissal denies how easy it is to dispose of plastic.

The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act defines the term "marine debris" to mean any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. It is the job of the United States Congress to take action in addressing the problem of plastic waste in our nation’s waters. Several options are available. In closing, I mention five:
  1. Improve waste management infrastructure and available technology to stop large plastic items from entering into U.S waterways and eventually the ocean. 
  2. Preventing microfibers from clothing and small plastic fragments and beads from entering wastewater by putting filters on washing machines. 
  3. Ocean clean-up projects along the coast where plastic debris accumulates. 
  4. Incentives for banning plastic bags and bottles. 
  5. Finally rethinking the way we interact with plastic, starting with the packaging. If we can take these steps there might be a way to start decreasing the amount of plastic waste entering our waterways and oceans. 


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