Microplastics: A macro threat

By Shelby Gillis and Richard Zarrilli | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Eight trillion microbeads enter into marine habitats every day in the United States alone. That’s enough to cover over 300 tennis courts every day, according to a research paper published in September in the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

Maia McGuire of University of Florida Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences has made it her passion to spread awareness about microplastics. McGuire was awarded a Marine Debris grant from NOAA to continue her research.

“I have this great new project called Florida Microplastic Awareness Project. This was funded by a grant from NOAA’s Marine Debris Project,” says McGuire.

Volunteers help McGuire collect water samples along the coast and look for the presence of plastic.
“Microplastics are microscopic pieces of plastic debris, generally defined as being less than 5 millimeters in size,” says McGuire.

The type of microplastics that are found in everyday products such as face wash, toothpaste, deodorant and even cosmetics are called microbeads. They are made of polyethylene or polypropylene and they are contaminating the world’s oceans.

microplastics from shelby gillis on Vimeo.

“Marine debris is one of the greatest man-made threats our oceans face today,” says NOAA Director Nancy Wallace.

“Our wastewater treatment systems, whether they’re septic tanks or waste water treatment plants, are not set up to remove these very small pieces of floating plastic,” says McGuire.

As part of the treatment process, water goes through settling tanks which separate solids and liquids, but not plastics.

According to research from the Environmental Science and Technology journal, 95 to 99.9 percent of microbeads become part of the solids, or sludge that is processed during the wastewater treatment. If 8 million microbeads are separated into the liquid waste that enters marine environments, then 800 trillion microbeads become part of the solid waste every day. The solid waste is often used as fertilizer. It is sprayed on land, then enters aquatic habitats via runoff from precipitation.

Once polyethylene has been introduced into the environment, it takes anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate.

Microplastics are virtually everywhere. They have been recorded in all five of the ocean’s currents, known as gyres, and even the Arctic sea ice. A University of Wisconsin study published in April 2013 found up to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile in three out of the five Great Lakes. The highest concentration was in Lake Erie.

Maia McGuire of the University of Florida Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences

Maia McGuire, a researcher at the University of Florida Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences

“The sources of these microplastics, unfortunately, are ultimately people,” says McGuire. “There are two types of microplastics: There’s what we call primary microplastics, which are the things that are deliberately made to be small pieces of plastic. This includes the microbeads that many people have heard about in the media that are in a lot of personal care products. The second type of microplastics is called secondary Microplastics. These are plastics that result from the breaking down of larger plastic items. Microfibers are one of the most abundant types of microplastics that we’re finding in water samples. These are coming from synthetic clothing that goes through the washing machine where the fibers are loosened, they become part of the water that gets flushed out in the waste water treatment system.”

When these tiny bits of plastic are introduced into the rivers and oceans, smaller organisms like plankton confuse them with food. Plankton that consume plastic aren’t able to consume enough real food, which affects their survival and reproductive characteristics, according to a study done by Matthew Cole of the Marine Laboratory in the city of Plymouth, England.

Microplastics contain chemicals from the manufacturing process as well as pollutants that are absorbed once they are introduced into the water. Chemical-filled plastics lay dormant in the organism that consumed them until they are eaten by a larger organism, thus transferring the pollutants.

“Microplastics are getting incorporated into the food chain. When fish are filter feeding, eating the plankton, without a doubt they’re consuming microplastics as well. There are absolutely fish out there that are consuming more plastic than plankton,” says Ed McGinley, a Flagler College biology professor.

Ed McGinley, a biology professor at Flagler College

Coral also consumes microplastics, according to a March study. Researchers with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University found that coral consumes the tiny plastic pieces, only at a slower rate than when consuming plankton. The plastic binds to the coral’s digestive system, starving the organisms because the plastic prevents digestion.

The declining health of coral affects humans directly. Coral reefs provide surrounding algae in the water the proper nutrients needed for photosynthesis. The loss of coral reefs would destroy marine ecosystems ability to produce oxygen. Species would begin to die off in mass numbers resulting in areas known as dead zones, where the ecosystem could not survive.

A study conducted by Boris Worm, a researcher of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, states:
“The loss of ocean biodiversity is accelerating, and 29 percent of the seafood species humans consume have already crashed. If the long-term trend continues, in 30 years there will be little or no seafood available for sustainable harvest.”

“While there have been some proposals about ways to perhaps clean up the oceans, they’re not really realistic or feasible given the large amount of plastic in the ocean and the very small size that we are now realizing of the plastics that are out there compared to the living organisms. So if you were trying to remove the micro plastics you’d also be removing all of the plankton in the same water sample,” says McGuire.

There are many types of plastics produced for different purposes, and they have different characteristics. One key difference is density. Some plastics float and some sink. This directly impacts where the microplastics end up in the environment.

“Microplastics just aren’t at the surface of the ocean. They extend through a fair depth of the water column which again makes it a challenge to remove,” says McGuire.

4-oceanA study published in the journal Science estimated that humans release between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year. Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia environmental engineer who led the study, wrote that this amount of trash is equivalent to lining up five grocery bags of trash for every coastline around the world.

The same research indicated that if nothing changes, by 2025 those five grocery bags of plastic would then be 10.

“Ultimately, most scientists seem to believe and seem to agree that the biggest thing that we can do to help with this situation is to reduce our use of plastics,” says McGuire.

With all of the recent studies and media coverage recently, people are becoming more aware of the problems that microplastics are producing. Microplastics is not an issue that can be ignored because of the number of negative consequences it holds for humans and the environment.

Microplastics along with the chemicals that bind to them are working their way up the food chain and causing major survival and reproduction issues along the way, only to reach to human population in a matter of time.

“Unfortunately plastics, they’re cheap, easy to produce and they’re really durable. So that’s why as a society that we’ve grown to use them in Tupperware, bags, that sort of thing. But now we’ve recognized the problem of them getting into the environment,” says Matt Brown, a Flagler College coastal environmental professor.


Matt Brown, a coastal environmental professor at Flagler College

These scientists and professors say consumers should significantly reduce overall plastic use and avoid or refuse plastics whenever possible.

“My personal goal at the moment is to eliminate my use of drinking straws because I’m going to use it one time and then it’s going to be thrown away, and could end up being plastic in the ocean,” McGuire says.

“I think for a long time the emphasis was on recycling. I think were sort of at that point now where we need to come up with ways other than plastic. Reduction and reuse is part of it, but we just need to move away from the plastic,” says Brown.

Because of all the recent scientific studies, research and media publicity, there has been a lot of federal pressure applied to companies that manufacture personal care products that contain polyethylene.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, the company Unilever removed polyethylene from all of the products it manufactures. Up and Up, a Target brand, has removed polyethylene from its facial scrub, and promised to remove plastic from all of its other branded products by the end of this year, says McGuire.

Companies like Unilever, The Body Shop, IKEA, Target Corporation, L’Oreal, Colgate/Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have all pledged to stop using microbeads in their personal care products.

“When the state of Illinois banned microbeads about a little over a year ago that brought a lot of public attention to the topic and the fact that these microbeads were in personal care products. And since then, several states have filled suit,” says McGuire.

Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland, Wisconsin and the province of Ontario in Canada have regulated or banned microbeads as well.

Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill on Oct. 8, 2015 banning the use of these microbeads as well. Starting in 2020 sales of personal care products that contain these microbeads will be lawfully banned. Rep. Richard Bloom, author of the bill, said, “We cannot afford to wait any longer to end microplastic pollution, the cost to the environment and wildlife is much too great.”

A non-profit organization called the Plastic Pollution Coalition has started a movement asking individuals sign a pledge that requires them to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. The idea behind the movement is that reusing unnecessary disposable plastic, such as straws, could make a huge impact if every person joined the cause.

“There’s not an ocean where it’s not a problem. There’s not an estuary where it’s not a problem. It’s a big concern, agencies and state governments are going to have to take measures like that, to sort of ban the use of them if we want to solve the problem,” says Brown.

Although the prevention of microbeads from becoming microplastic pollution will take time, people whom are educated on this topic will agree that something needs to be done.

“Our oceans and coasts are resilient, but we need to take action now to help protect our living resources and habitats,” says Wallace.

The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high and the solution is simple. Banning microbeads from products that enter wastewater will then protect water quality, wildlife and resources used by people.

“This is something that if not addressed immediately, will have severe ramifications on fish in the environment, on the food chains in the environment. Not only is it physically bad for the fish to have plastics, but there’s also chemicals that can be associated with them. They’re going to get into the food chain and ultimately will have some effect on the human population,” says McGinley.

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