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We know about the plastic problem we can see: the products we use everyday, much of which ends up in landfills or, worse, the growing plastic wastelands in the middle of the ocean. As it turns out, the plastic we can’t see – microplastics – is just as, if not more, harmful. Earlier this month, the United Nation’s Environmental Programme (UNEP) named microplastics as one of the key, emerging issues that will require global action in the coming years.

Microplastic dredged from an ocean trawl. (Photo: 5 Gyres)

Microplastic dredged from an ocean trawl. (Photo: 5 Gyres)

“Once in the ocean, plastic does not go away, but breaks down into microplastic particles,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press statement. “More responsible approaches to managing the lifecycle of plastics will be needed to reduce their impacts on our oceans and ecosystems.”

The Small Origins of a Big Problem

Microplastics are, by definition, tiny. Sometimes called nanoparticles, they come primarily from plastic beads and other manufactured materials most commonly used in personal care products. Though the United States has recently banned their use, they are still common in many other parts of the world.

Microbeads

A trawl sample of microbead and microplastics collected in the ocean. (Source: 5 Gyres)

Another key source of microplastics is normal-sized plastics that get ground up and broken down in nature. This means that the visible plastic we can see in places like the massive Pacific Garbage Patch could, with time, end up increasing the amount of microplastics throughout the entire ocean.

Microplastics rarely degrade and, in fact, can last for thousands of years. The reason we love plastic (its durability) is also why its becoming a huge environmental catastrophe.

Could we have seen this coming? It seems ridiculous that, just a few years ago, corporations thought it was okay to put tiny pieces of non-recyclable plastic into bathroom products that would end up going down drainages and, eventually, into waterways. The numbers are staggering – some products had 300,000 little pieces of plastic in them, all too small to be caught by water treatment systems.

“[Wastewater treatment plants] do a great job of doing what they are designed to do,” Timothy Hoellein, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, said in a press statement. “But they weren’t designed to filter out these tiny particles.”

Downriver plastic collection net system in Australia.

Downriver plastic collection net system in Australia.

With trillions of microplastics entering our environment every year for at least the past decade, they can now be found in every body of water on the planet. According to one study, every square kilometer of ocean has, on average, 63,320 microplastic particles floating at the surface, with many, many more down below. And that is not good.

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere

Here’s the scary thing: The more we learn about plastic in the ocean, the worse the problem seems. The UNEP report highlighted several highly concerning recent findings, including a study last year that found a quarter of seafood sold in markets in California had plastic in it. This is troublesome – microplastics can act as a bio-accumulant for heavy metals, such as mercury, or dangerous chemicals, which makes seafood potentially more harmful for human consumption. This is made worse by the fact that a lot of plastic already contains chemical additives for preventing fire, absorbing heat or something as simple as reflecting a bright color.

And there’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of microplastic. For example, we understand very little what role it plays in freshwater systems, such as rivers and lakes. We also are unclear on microplastics’ impact on biological functions at the beginning of the food chain – as now marine life such as plankton are being found to have consumed microplastics.

Great Blue Heron at Earl Brown Park in DeLand, Florida. A fish swam into a water filled plastic bag in the pond and became its pre-packaged meal. (Photo Credit: Andrea Westmoreland / Flickr)

Great Blue Heron at Earl Brown Park in DeLand, Florida, taking a fish trapped in a plastic bag. (Photo Credit: Andrea Westmoreland / Flickr)

“Better understanding in these key areas will help us refine and design the most effective solutions,” said Allison Schutes, Senior Manager of the Trash Free Seas Program and theOcean Conservancy. “However, we already have enough information to act now.”

We need to act soon because if we don’t, the problem will only get worse. A study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released last year found that, if we don’t make drastic changes soon, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic in them than fish.

In 2014, global plastic production hit 311 metric tons, a four percent increase over the previous year, and there are no signs this trend will stop anytime soon. As more and more countries develop, they are demanding consumer goods that are often wrapped in plastic. We need to ensure all of this plastic does not end up in the ocean.

Global Commons, Global Solution

Beyond the accepted coastal “exclusive economic zone,” the oceans are not controlled by any single nation. That means that plastic in the ocean is a global problem, and will require a global solution.

“There is not one simple solution,” said Schutes. “Microplastics present a really unique subset of issues.”

Undertow on the beach in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Photo Credit: Versageek / Flickr)

Undertow on the beach in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Photo Credit: Versageek / Flickr)

The good news? This is not a partisan issue. Last year’s microbead ban passed with wide support through a bitterly divided Congress that has found little else to agree on, particularly about the environment. Corporations are not being stubborn on this issue either, with companies like Unilever, Colgate Palmolive and L’Oreal already eliminating microbead production – not just where required by law but throughout their global supply chains. We’re seeing rare convergence on this issue.

“The distance we have traveled in the last five years is really exciting,” said Schutes, pointing to the massive growth in both the knowledge and awareness of the issue. “That awareness has been put into action, and we’ve actually seen legitimate and tangible change.”

For Schutes and Ocean Conservancy, the next step will be to help build the capacity of countries with large plastic pollution issues to develop effective waste management and recycling infrastructure.

“In rapidly developing countries, you have huge populations entering middle class, and demand for [plastic] products going through the roof,” said Schutes. “But the problem is that the waste infrastructure is not developing as rapidly as the demand for products.” This is what is creating the plastic waste problem, and one reason Ocean Conservancy is focusing on pushing for highly sophisticated waste infrastructure in developing countries.

Microplastics pull from the Rhine. (Image Credit: University of Basel / Thomas Mani)

Microplastics pull from the Rhine. (Image Credit: University of Basel / Thomas Mani)

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one of the organizations raising awareness on this issue, believes that the solution relies on creating a circular economy for global plastics. This means capturing the value of plastic waste – which they estimate as being between $80-120 billion – through a comprehensive value chain. Such a system, if implemented globally, could ensure that no more plastic ends up in ocean, or in the fish sold in our markets.

It won’t be easy, and for it to succeed, NGOs, consumers, governments and companies, all need to come together. And if all goes well, perhaps the global movement against microplastics and plastic pollution can become a model for how the world can come together and solve complex environmental challenges quickly.

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