Plastics. We wrote about them a few weeks ago and here they are again.
Why? You may ask. Well, because plastic is everywhere and the issues that originate from plastic are tremendous.
Today, we’re delving into the subject of microplastics to learn more about the sources and effects of these microscopic pieces of plastic that fill the oceans around the world. This has lead to the ocean being known as a ‘plastic soup’.
All pictures in this blogpost were kindly shared with us by beachcomber Ruth Nederveen, born and raised in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Her pictures show her passion for the beauty of the beach and the harsh reality of plastic pollution. You can find Ruth on instagram under @ruthnederveen.
Plastics are very versatile materials. They can be used to create a huge variety of products.
In a previous blog post, we wrote about the general disadvantages of plastic packaging such as plastic water bottles, bread bags, and other single use plastics. Click here if you want to learn more.
Plastic is however used to produce much more than packaging material. Products made from plastic also include everyday household items such as toothbrushes, tupperware, and mixing bowls. Aside from that, plastics are used in the production of furniture, electronics, vehicles, and much much more!
We explained that plastic is incredibly damaging to the environment. They are only recyclable a limited amount of times, use valuable oils to be created, and don’t break down for at least 1000 years after being discarded.
If you want to read more about plastics, you can do so in this blog post.
Microplastics – what are they?
Although most plastics are found in objects that we can grasp, not all common types of plastic are visible to the human eye.
Microplastics are microscopically small pieces of plastic. They are generally classified as being 5mm and smaller in size.
Some groups do use a second classification for plastics smaller than 0.05 mm, namely nanoplastics. However, we’ve found the difference in origin and causes between micro- and nanoplastics of the plastics to be quite small. To keep things simple and clear, we will use the broad classification of microplastics here, including all plastics smaller than 5mm.
These microplastics are found just about everywhere in the environment, beit visible to the naked eye, or on microscopic scale. As the term plastic soup indicates, most plastic eventually ends up polluting our oceans where it has been found to be most harmful to aquatic ecosystems.
Two types of microplastics
Microplastics come from two main sources, both equally disturbing if you ask us.
Primary microplastics are small pieces of plastic that originate directly from human use. Often, they are purposely manufactured as an abrasive in cosmetic products such as face peelings, body scrubs or shower gels.
They also include plastic material that originates from abrasion of larger plastic objects as a direct cause of human use. An example here is the abrasion of tyres on roads whilst driving (from all vehicles, including bicycles).
Secondary microplastics are different from primary microplastics, as they don’t originate from human product use directly. They develop as larger pieces of plastic break down in aquatic or marine ecosystems due to abrasion and exposure to light. They thus result from the natural degrading process of plastic rather than direct human product use.
Although secondary microplastics do not originate directly due to human product use, we are still at the cause of their development. Do not forget, plastic would not exist if it wasn’t for us humans.
Now, you might think that if you are disposing of your plastic correctly, and avoiding products with visible tiny plastic abrasives, you’re doing a great job in limiting the production of microplastics.
Well, although it’s definitely a great start, it’s just the tip of the iceberg (well actually, the tip of the plastic mountain 😉 ).
Plastics are hidden everywhere, and the origin of microplastics is around every corner.
Did you know that plastic food packaging deposits tiny amounts of plastic into food and drinks? This goes for bottled water that you buy in the supermarket, for example, but also for (non-dairy) milk in Tetra Pak.
There are however quite a few products that shed microplastics that you might not have known about. So here’s a few:
- Paper cups
- Tea bags
- Cigarette butts
- Baby wipes
- Tennis balls
A major source of primary microplastics is the clothing that we wear on a daily basis.
How can clothing shed plastic particles?
We can almost hear some of you asking this question.
Well, most textiles that create the clothing that you’ve got hanging in your wardrobe are made of plastics.
Let’s check this theory. Head to your wardrobe and pick three different items at random. Read the labels and see what materials these three items are made of.
Do they include polyethylene, elastane, lycra, or nylon? If not, you picked against the odds, or better, you are one of the lucky few that purposely bought plastic-free clothing.
These products are not just made of plastic, which you may not have been aware of, but they also produce microplastics every time they are washed.
When your beloved ‘woolen’ sweater is freshening up in the washing machine, it sheds thousands of tiny pieces of plastic. You won’t see them, as they are rinsed out and centrifuged into the drain.
These microplastics however eventually end up in aquatic and marine ecosystems and that’s where the major problems arise.
So, what’s the big deal?
Alright, so what’s the big deal with these microplastics? If we can’t see them, what’s so bad about them?
Well, like we explained in our blog post about plastic packaging material, a large amount of plastic does not end up in recycling bins. It is often thrown out with black bag waste, meaning it ends up in landfills. Over a long period of time, it degrades into microplastics, which are then carried to rivers with rain water, and eventually end up in to oceans.
Those microplastics that we create directly by using plastic products are hence sadly not the only type. Secondary microplastics are formed in the sea from all of these larger plastic pieces that end up there due to our own negligence.
These microplastics all end up in our oceans, one way or another, and harm the ecosystems.
Where you all might have seen pictures that show how fish, turtles, and other marine life get stuck in plastic debris, you might not realize the effect of microscopic plastic particles.
Only but increasing
As we stated before, plastic does not fully break down for at least 1000 years. This means, that at the current rate of pollution, the microplastics in the oceans are most likely to build up tremendously over time.
For marine life, there are two main issues with the amount of plastic that is currently in our oceans.
Microplastics are taken up by marine animals both by ingestion as well as respiration, meaning that fish are literally eating and breathing plastic.
Isn’t that concerning?
But it’s not just fish that suffer from the ingestion of microplastics, corals and zooplankton do, too.
Due to the ingestion of small amounts of plastic, organisms can start to feel full. This satiation can cause a decreased food intake and can eventually lead to starvation.
Plastic on your plate
You might think ‘that that’s not my problem’, but you’re mistaken.
The effects don’t stop there. When smaller individuals are eaten by larger predatory animals, these pieces of plastic work their way up the food chain.
Microplastics are known to absorb chemical pollutants, and these too end up in larger fish like tuna. And guess where they end up?
That’s right, on your plate.
And it does not stop here
Although we have mainly focussed on plastic in the ocean in this blog post, don’t be fooled. Microplastics are even widely present in the air that we breathe!
They are highly present at the sides of roads due to tyre abrasion, consumed by worms, and spread in the ecosystem.
Currently, a lot of research is being conducted on plastics, microplastics in particular. Here at Wageningen University for example, where we have studied, it was part of our curriculum.
Not all consequences of microplastics in any environment are known just yet, but the results draw a clear future.
What can we do?
There are some simple steps to take when it comes to minimization of plastic pollution.
We could all learn something from Ruth, the photographer in today’s blog post, who collects plastic on the beach in her hometown. When we start our travels, we will collect plastic waste on our long hikes out in nature to clean our environment.
Starting tomorrow, why don’t you pick up that plastic bottle that you’ve walked past ten times now? It will feel great to clean up, we promise! And imagine every person picking up just two pieces of plastic a day, it would make an incredible difference!
And Ruth’s images don’t yet give you the urge to make a change, here’s one final fact we’ll share with you today:
99% of plastic in the ocean is invisible!
But please don’t forget, that every plastic item will eventually end up in nature, even if we carefully pick up other people’s plastic waste and make sure they are recycled into textiles.
In the end, the limitation, and eventually the exclusion of our plastic consumption is the only solution to the current tremendous increase in plastic pollution.