Tiny debris with a big impact
Editor’s Note: During Plastic Free July, the Loggerhead Lowdown blog will focus on a variety of plastic issues and ways to be part of the solution. To learn more about the global Plastic Free July movement, go to https://www.plasticfreejuly.org/.
By Aubry Forsyth
As plastic in our waterways becomes an ever-increasing problem, marine life is being impacted negatively. Seabirds, fish, and turtles are among the many creatures impacted by plastic pollution. Plastic of all kinds have been found in the stomachs of these and other animals. The ingested plastic can cause blockages in the digestive tracts, especially those of smaller animals.
One category of plastic is microplastics, which are typically defined as small particles less than 5 millimeters in length. Studies have shown that microplastics have been found in drinking water. It is not known if they impact human health; however, microplastics can have dramatic impacts on the environment. Although these plastics are small, they can build up in the stomachs of animals and cause blockages that ultimately kill the animal. Plastics can enter an organism’s body either through direct consumption or through consumption of other organisms that have ingested the plastic.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources. The majority of microplastics come from manufactured products that start out as larger pieces and eventually degrade into smaller particles. These large pieces include plastic bottles, bags, fishing gear, etc. Plastic bottles and bags are often a common sight on beaches, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that these items are a source of microplastics. Microplastics can also be observed in the sand as tiny, often colorful plastic particles.
One specific type of microplastic, called microbeads, has caused environmental issues. Microbeads are small pieces of polyethylene plastic that once were used in personal care products such as cleansers and toothpaste. Their use began around 50 years ago, but they were banned through the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015. This act bans the use of microbeads in all beauty and cosmetic products; however, microbeads persist in our waterways.
There are some ways that you can help solve the microplastic problem. Reducing overall plastic use is a good way to start. Try to avoid disposable bags and choose reusable ones instead, choose glass or metal containers over plastic ones, or participate in local beach cleanups.
To learn more about microplastics, visit NOAA’s Ocean Facts on microplastics.