By Courtney Schmidt
The rise in production of plastics during the mid-20th century set the stage for plastic as a necessary element of modern life, thus helping free us from the constraints of the natural world and limited resources of the old biological regime. Since then, different types of plastic have been produced in many shapes and forms. One including the form of microplastic. Microplastic can be found in many personal care products existing as microbeads, or can also be produced from the degradation of large plastic into smaller and smaller particles in the oceans. When products containing microbeads are used as directed, the tiny plastic beads are flushed down into the sewer system; waste water treatment plants are unable to effectively filter out all of the beads, allowing considerable amounts of plastic to escape into our oceans. The full extent of consequences that microplastic poses is currently unknown; however, the effects of plastic in the ocean can be felt socially with public awareness of the toxicity of the microbeads. It is prominent economically, with millions of dollars spent on beach cleanups, tourism losses, and damages to the fishing industries. Ecologically, they are taking a large toll on wildlife, land pollution and air pollution. Overall, the accumulation of plastic, especially microplastic, in the Earth’s oceans represents one of man’s negative actions on the natural environment, thus contributing to the Anthropocene.
In 1972 microbeads were first patented for use in cleansers, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s when big industries started using the microplastic to replace natural alternatives like almonds, oatmeal, and sea salt, as exfoliators in cosmetics as a cheaper option. There are still currently hundreds of products available on production lines that contain microbeads. The microbeads, usually less than 5mm in diameter, found in these personal care products are synthetic polymers typically made from using carbon atoms provided by non-renewable petroleum and other fossil fuels. The synthetic polymers are made up of chains that tend to be longer than those found in nature, which provides plastic strength, less density, and flexibility. Typically microbeads are composed from Polyethlene (PE) but can also be made from Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA) and Nylon. These plastic particles are considered ‘primary’ microplastic because they are manufactured for a particular application. Larger plastic that has been degraded into tiny pieces is referred to as ‘secondary’ microplastic.
The formation of ‘secondary’ microplastics is influenced by a combination of environmental factors and chemical properties of the polymer from which the plastic is derived. Fragmentation is most prevalent on beaches where UV irradiation is high and waves produce a physical abrasion effect on the plastic. Plastic’s biggest benefit and drawback lies within its property of durability. This provides appeal for the use of it in many different areas but, because it doesn’t biodegrade, is the main reason as to why it is such a threat to the marine environment.
With the increase in synthetics like plastic over the last 50 years, the nature of wastes from human society has dramatically changed. Research has consistently shown that plastics make up 60 to 80% of all marine debris. Once plastic reaches the ocean, about half of plastic debris floats and can travel on currents for thousands of miles concentrating in gyres due to its low density. An ocean gyre is a large system of rotating ocean currents created by global wind patterns, Earth’s rotation, and Earth’s landmasses. The gyres, in which debris settles, are referred to as garbage patches. As the garbage patches draw in debris, the debris gradually travels to the center where it becomes trapped and breaks down into tiny microscopic pieces of plastic. With an increasing collection of the microplastic, being contributed from both secondary and primary forms, an epidemic known as “plastic soup” has been created. The term “plastic soup” was first coined by sailor Charles Moore to describe a large area in the Pacific Ocean where plastic outweighed zooplankton by a factor of six to one, and which is now growing at an alarming rate covering an area twice the size of the continual United States. There are five subtropical gyres that are being contaminated with plastic debris, which in total cover 40% of the ocean. An estimated 15 to 51 trillion particles of floating microplastic are in the world’s ocean, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons. All of this debris in the ocean is hazardous for many different species such as shrimp, fish, and birds, as they mistakenly consume microplastic as food.
When microplastic is ingested by marine species, the plastic has a direct affect on trophic levels and the food chain, threatening even our own health by eating seafood. Plastic may even contain additives like flame-retardants and softening agents to give certain types of plastic special characteristics making them toxic to animal life. Plastics also tend to be good absorbers for waterbourne chemicals that may allow a single microbead to be 1 million times more toxic than the water around it.
Aside from their direct effect on species’ diets, these toxic particles also effect the biodiversity of the ocean. As more microplastic accumulates in the oceans, animals adapt to their surroundings and use the plastic to create new habitats for marine organisms. Birds use plastic bands to build their nests and small hermit crabs may use fragments of plastic as shells. The remaining plastic, not eaten or used by marine creatures, washes up onto shorelines resulting in tourist destinations becoming littered with garbage. The management of beach upkeep comes at a large price. It was determined that 90 west coast communities spend more than $520,000,000 each year to prevent litter.
Though there has been limited research on how American’s perceive microplastics and the environment, there are two studies that specifically focus on microplastics. One study was done in Chile, involving 1,000 school students ages 10 to 17. The results found that the majority of students had never heard of microplastics before. The other study was a multinational web-based survey. In this study of over 26,000 Europeans, 78% agreed, “the use of micro plastic particles in consumer cosmetics and similar products should be forbidden”. From this study, most people would prefer an alternative to the plastic beads. No study investigating the extent of knowledge the public has on understanding this issue has been done. Growing awareness of the issues with microplastic pollution has led to the founding of many different awareness groups dating back to 1969 with the Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection, GESAMP. However, even with the formation of these groups, the first published warning about the possible consequences of using microbeads did not appear until 1991 with governmental actions first occurring about 20 years later.
As a member of an industrialized society which produces vast quantities of materials, many of which contain plastic for our consumption, it may be possible to consider developed nations using the products containing plastic to be the anthropos of this Anthropocene. In societies that are less developed and more agriculturally based, wastes tend to be more organic in which they do not supplement into the increasing usage of plastic in the world today. On average, Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste a year but recycle only 1 to 2% of it. Though individuals may not be able to stop production of plastic, we can reduce disposal waste through sustainable methods of reusing and recycling.
Could the world be urged to begin a new era where advances in science and technology could be implemented not only to preserve the Earth, but also be used to allow for generous economic activity in healthy ways? Corporate reasoning tends to focus on finding the most “cost effective” practices for the manufacturing of consumer goods. Thinking from this capitalistic view is what has led us to this point, the Anthropocene. In order to continue on, there needs to be a shift of focus to also incorporate what is vital for maintaining a healthy environment, while maintaining positive economic activity. If big businesses are slow to change, we as consumers need to be aware of what our consumption is doing to the world.
How can we reverse “Microplastic: as an Unseen Threat”? According to 5Gyres, there are three ways in which plastic consumption can be reduced. These are: public education and litter laws, improvement of waste management, and corporate responsibility. Education and awareness of the consequences microplastic has on the environment can help lead individuals toward better choices in products and the waste management of plastic. Through growing awareness, U.S. legislators and governments around the world have begun to take action to reduce the further spread of microbeads into the oceans. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was created to ban rinse-off cosmetics that contain intentionally added plastic microbeads beginning on January 1, 2018, and to ban manufacturing of these cosmetics beginning on July 1, 2017. There exists other initiatives to help raise awareness of the lasting impact of microbeads. An informational website and app called Beat the Microbead can be downloaded onto a smartphone, giving links to products that contain microplastic, and those that do not. We all need to be mindful, educated, and instrumental in creating solutions for a better world. Without reducing our plastic consumption, especially in the form of microplastic, “plastic soup” will continue to be an imminent entity within our oceans threatening our food, environment, economy, and future.
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