The particulars of plastic
There is mounting community concern about microplastics and the damage that it is doing to the marine environment, but for most of us we’re in the dark about how big the problem is and what we can to do to help. All plastic breaks down into microplastics; every bit of plastic that is manufactured has the potential to end up in our environment.
At the moment we know there’s a huge amount of plastic in the oceans, but we’re still missing key data to properly understand its impact. We do know that plastic breaks down mechanically far more quickly than it does chemically, so each tiny bit of plastic sticks around for a very long time.
- Nurdles: under 5 mm particles of pre-production plastic found everywhere.
- Microbeads: purpose-built particles added as an exfoliant in cosmetics and body wash.
- Macroplastics: plastic bottles, bags and wrappers that can breakdown into tiny particles.
Macroplastics are the biggest threat to our marine life. It’s the result of litter, and people littering is the biggest cause. Unfortunately human behaviour can be the hardest to control.
Microbeads, on the other hand, reach the oceans through our sewage systems, and are carried away through our drain and sewage systems
An expensive solution would be to engineer better water management systems that act as a sieve for the microbeads. Ideally, these cosmetics products should not have plastic in them in the first place. Consumers can send clear signals that they will not buy products containing microbeads.
If nurdles spill, it’s often during the manufacturing process and this can be monitored through a more strict enforcement of compliance and regulations.
Fish can mistake plastic for food and that means they’re missing out on vital nutrition. What’s more these fish are also someone else’s dinner … so when they get eaten, the plastic gets ingested again.
An emerging field of study is the amount of toxic chemicals attaching to the surface of microplastics. These micro-colonies increase as the plastic breaks down … the overall surface area of one shopping bag is far greater when it has disintegrated into multiple pieces. At the moment, we don’t know precisely how this is affecting marine life. The critical action needed is to capture plastic before it starts to break down.