Microplastics and ocean plastic

If you’ve seen the BBC’s Blue Planet, you’ll be familiar with the problem of ocean plastics. Just think of those images of the plastic found in the stomachs of dead albatross chicks, or the whale killed by ocean plastics. Plastic is such a big problem that rubbish has even been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean. The result of all this is that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

So what are microplastics?

Microplastics are, as the name suggests, “extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste”. Ranging from visible pieces a few millimetres long to tiny, microscopic particles, ocean microplastics are often swallowed accidentally by animals who mistake them for food. If those creatures then die before they have a chance to reproduce, this can decimate populations. Even if they survive their plastic diet, it can build up inside their bodies and gradually move up the food chain, passed on to the predators who eat them. And the predator at the top is us.

seagull eating rubbish

A seagull tucks into a piece of rubbish

Hang on, does that mean there’s microplastic in my food?

Yup, precisely that. Apparently, the average European seafood eater is thought to ingest 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year.

And it’s not just seafood. 83% of drinking water samples are contaminated with plastic. Scientists have also encountered it in salt, beer and honey. A 2017 study found that, out of 17 types of salt tested from eight countries, all but one contained plastic particles.

Worryingly, we don’t yet know exactly what effect the plastic we ingest has on our health, but it’s probably safe to say that we’d be better off without it inside us.

How does microplastic end up in the ocean in the first place?

Some of it is caused by litter that people have dropped finding its way out to sea and breaking down, either through UV rays degrading it or through contact with other items eroding it, similar to how sand is formed. Some microplastic comes from stuff that’s already at sea – old fishing nets lost or cut loose by fishermen – and similarly breaking down. In fact, 46% of ocean plastic comes from discarded fishing nets.

Some plastic pollution is because of spillages from shipping containers, which includes "nurdles," the tiny pellets used to manufacture bigger plastic items. And then there's the stuff enters the ocean already as microplastics...

plastic floating in the sea

Plastic floating in the ocean

How are you contributing to the microplastic problem?

You may not have realised it, but we’re all guilty of contributing to microplastics in the sea, even if we live miles inland.

Had you thought about how many of your clothes are made from plastic? Polyester, nylon and elastane (better known as Lycra or Spandex), among others, are all kinds of plastic. This means that every time you do the laundry, hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibres are becoming detached from your clothes and washing down the drain. In the UK, even though our water treatment plants are able to filter out more than 90% of these microplastics, the sheer volume means that over 150 tonnes of microplastics is still escaping into the ocean per year in the UK alone.

Even the microplastics that are filtered out at sewage works are a problem; they end up in the sludge, which is then used on farms as fertiliser for growing crops. As a result, microplastics are invading our soils as well as our seas.

But there are things you can do to combat this problem. Things like the Guppyfriend washing bag and the Cora ball are both designed to filter out the fibres that would otherwise slip through our water treatment facilities’ systems. You can also try washing synthetic clothes less often, using slower spin speeds and cooler temperatures, and buying clothes made from natural fibres.

What other sources of microplastic are there?

Drains again, I’m afraid! If you do the washing up with a standard washing-up sponge that you’d buy from a supermarket, you’re washing microplastic particles into the water system with each tub of dishes. The problem is that these sponges are actually made from plastic, and over time they shed their particles. But fear not, because there are easy alternatives available: loofahs and coir brushes are both made from natural materials, so you can use them guilt-free and even compost them at the end of their lives.

plastic sponge vs coir brush

Coir brush vs plastic sponge

Here’s another one: glitter. We hate to burst your bubble, but much like microbeads in cosmetics it’s one of those “hidden” plastics that you don’t even think about as being plastic. It isn’t recyclable and, as anyone who’s opened a present wrapped in sparkly paper knows, it’s incredibly hard to dispose of without it going absolutely everywhere. Whether you’re buying a greetings card, embarking on a craft project or treating yourself to some new Christmas decorations, try to avoid glitter, or at the very least make sure it’s one of the more eco-friendly kinds not made from plastic.

From glitter to gutter (see what I did there?), what’s one of the top ten sources of microplastic pollution in the UK? You may think of them as being rubber, but car tyres are actually made from various kinds of plastic, or “synthetic rubber”. And as they wear, they shed microplastics into the environment. It’s thought that around 7000-19000 tonnes of microplastics enter the UK’s surface waters each year just because of tyres. Other than petitioning for change, the best way of individuals reducing this kind of microplastic pollution is to simply travel fewer miles by car, which is of course also good for reducing CO2 emissions.

Is there anything else you can do to beat microplastic?

  • Lobby and nag: contact your MP, sign petitions, lobby for fishing / automotive / other industry practices to change
  • Tell your friends: even if people have heard of microplastics, they often don’t know that they themselves are contributing to the problem
  • Support anti-plastic initiatives: join beach cleans and litter picks, donate to environmental charities and campaigns
  • Avoid sources of microplastic: don’t buy plastic glitter, consider eating less seafood, change your laundry habits, use more public transport

It all boils down to the same thing we always suggest here at What Plastic: reduce your use of plastics in general, particularly disposable ones. If you can, keep an eye out for news articles talking about this kind of environmental problem to stay clued up. Ultimately, if you aren’t using these products in the first place, you can’t find yourself accidentally contributing to the pollution.