What are Microplastics? How are they Impacting the Environment?

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

Kerry Taylor-Smith

What's a microplastic? Where does it come from? And how are they impacting our environment? Azo Clean Tech takes a look at these questions and how microplastics impact the environment in the excerpt below.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm long which are harmful to the ocean and aquatic life – and potentially to humans. Research into microplastics is still in its infancy; not much is known about them and their influence – but we do know that they are having an impact on the environment.

Microplastics originate from a number of sources, including the degradation of larger pieces of plastics, synthetic fibers and microbeads found in health and beauty and cleaning products. Plastics and beads of this size can pass easily through water filtrations systems. Once in the ocean, they are mistaken by aquatic creatures and birds for food and can accumulate up the food chain until they reach humans. Humans are likely to ingest microplastics by consuming seafoods and other foods, or simply by drinking tap water and we just don’t know what risks these minute pieces of plastics pose.

Microplastic Pollution

Research published in 2018 suggested the levels of microplastic pollution in the oceans was worse than first thought, with the current estimate of 5 trillion particles worldwide being far too low. The highest microplastic pollution discovered yet in the world was in a river in Manchester, UK. Major floods in the area in 2015-16 flushed more than 40 billion pieces of microplastics out into the sea. This suggests that the problem actually begins upstream in the river catchments – if these areas can be controlled then perhaps the clean-up of the oceans can begin.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program is developing and testing standardized field methods for collecting sediment, sand and surface-water microplastics. The aim is to eventually allow for a global comparison of the amount of microplastics in the environment. This is seen as the first step in determining the final distribution, impact and fate of these troublesome plastic pieces.

Plastics blighting the environment is not a new problem; it has been amassing gradually since the 1960s to the point that huge masses of plastic are floating in the oceans with still more washing up on the once spotless beaches of the world. The issue of microbeads entering the ocean is not even new: these tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene – which act as an exfoliant in products such as cleansers and toothpaste – replaced natural products and have been making their way into the environment for almost 50 years.

Thankfully, there has been a reversal in the trend of using microbeads in consumer care products, and in 2015, President Barak Obama signed the Microbead-free waters Act which banned their use. The UK – and many other countries – have followed suit. The European Parliament’s environment committee want to go further; they will ban microplastics in personal care products by 2020 and are drawing up minimum requirements for member states to tackle other sources of microplastics and place taxes on plastic to fund projects to prevent the generation of plastic waste.

Read more here.