Researchers from the UK's National Oceanography Centre have found that the Atlantic Ocean is contaminated by much more plastic than previously thought. Beforehand, studies had only investigated the presence of macroplastics: large pieces of plastic visible to the naked eye. However, scientists are concerned it is only the tip of the iceberg. A 2020 study has found that “by some measures, the trash that’s floating on the surface of the water only accounts for about 1% of the plastic pollution that humans generate.” What makes up for the rest? Microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long, comprise a large part of newly found pollution. You can read more about this in our blog post: “What are Microplastics”.
Currently, there may be upwards of 21 million metric tons of these contaminants in the Atlantic Ocean, which can lead to serious environmental and health consequences. They can make their way up the food chain, and fish have been found to contain large amounts of these in their bodies. The microplastics contained in seafood can end up on our plates, and even though there is not enough research into the effects these could have on human health, it can be difficult to believe that there are no consequences to consuming plastic in one’s regular diet.
Where do these microplastics come from? A large majority of microplastics are broken down pieces of larger contaminants, which erode over time and become smaller into crumpled up pieces. A second source of microplastics are exfoliant beads, which are commonly used in exfoliating face washes and have just recently been banned in Europe and the U.S
Plastic production has increased at a rate of about 4% each year since 2000, but it is unclear if this directly correlates to microplastic growth since they take a long time to erode and break down. British sailor and environmentalist Ellen MacArthur presented a report at the World Economic Forum in Davos that said, “In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).” Professor Jamie Woodward, an expert in plastic pollution of new study conducted estimates that the plastic that has been found is from up to 65 years ago. A large source of it comes from the mainland, as wind currents carry these small pollutants to large bodies of water.
Daily choices that can reduce your footprint are to end or reduce use of plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and food wrappers (all ubiquitous sources of waste). Joining local cleanup efforts is another great way to help the plastic problem. Although it is more difficult to pick up microplastics, legislative actions such as plastic bans may be more impactful solutions in your area. Inform yourself of local efforts to institute these policies and look for ways you can help.
Our small actions form a part of something greater and truly make a difference.