How Much Do You Know About Ocean Plastic? What Can You Do to Stop It?
Microplastics, microbeads, and microfibers: what’s the difference? More importantly what can you do to stop them from destroying our ocean?
By Alex Aines
These days it’s hard to avoid the topic of plastic in the ocean. Stories, photos, and videos of ocean animals caught up in our waste go viral, while celebrities & the Lonely Whale Foundation, focus on getting the word out to the world to #StopSucking. So how much do you know about ocean plastic? What can you do to help stop it?
Most people who have heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” imagine contiguous floating islands of plastic and debris. But, as it turns out, that vision – of a plastic island twice the size of Texas – isn’t entirely accurate. In reality, the plastic in the patch is much smaller than you might expect, making the overall problem much, much bigger.
The 5 Gyres institute (www.5Gyres.org) ran a number of sampling expeditions looking at the amount of plastic in our ocean. Following those expeditions, 5 Gyres estimated that 5.25 trillion particles of plastic were in the ocean. Of those, a whopping 95% were smaller than a grain of rice! In 2013, Ocean Research Project, a grantee of our Polar Seas Initiative, completed a 6,000 mile survey of the North Pacific Garbage Patch. What they found wasn’t a giant island, but more of a confetti filled soup of tiny plastic pieces. Check out a video of their expedition:
Plastic products that end up in the ocean can be anything from that plastic bag you got at the grocery store, the Styrofoam container that held your leftovers from a restaurant, a balloon that you accidentally let float away, fishing gear that was lost or discarded, and a number of other items that do not biodegrade. Americans use half a billion plastic straws EVERY DAY and way too many of them are found along our shorelines and on our beaches. How do all of these items find their way to the ocean when we use them onshore, often miles from the sea?
Often plastics enter the ocean through improper waste management (e.g. blowing out of cans or trucks and off of landfills), accidental (or intentional) dumping at sea or on the shoreline, and through storm water runoff. This water runoff from big rain storms can carry plastics and other waste straight into rivers or into the ocean. These plastic pieces usually start out large and breakdown into smaller pieces, and once they are less than 5mm in size, these plastics are deemed “microplastics.”
Microplastics have been discovered in the stomachs of many species of marine animals from tiny organisms such as plankton, to much larger organisms such as whales. Sometimes they were mistaken for food and sometimes they were scooped up along with real food by filter feeders such as corals and whale sharks.
In addition to the problem of microplastics being mistaken for food, there is also the issue that chemical additives can leach out of these plastics and enter the ocean. Whether they contaminate the water that flows through marine animals as they swim and feed or the bodies of marine animals when consumed, these additives are not good for the long-term health of the ocean.
Contaminants in the ocean, such as pesticides and motor oil, can also adhere to the microplastics that many animals are consuming. A single microplastic particle can be up to one million times more toxic than the water around it. Even scarier is the fact that the plastic we are putting into the ocean, and that marine animals are eating, could also make its way back to us through our seafood consumption. So, we could be consuming plastic as well. More research is being done on how microplastics might magnify in organisms further up the food chain (including us) and how plastics might affect the health of these organisms.
Microbeads start out small and then break down further. Plastic microbeads are often added to products like body or face wash, toothpaste, and cosmetics. As Ellen Pershbacher wrote for the International Joint Commission, “Early patents for microbeads in personal care products began in the late 1960s. They were not regularly included commercially until the 1990s when they were considered a go-to source of innovation in personal care products. Manufacturers added them to hundreds of personal care products, including cosmetics, lotions, face washes, toothpastes, shampoos, sunscreens, shaving creams and exfoliators, for the silky texture they create.” Little did they realize how far-reaching the consequences would be.
Most wastewater treatment facilities cannot filter out these plastic microbeads, so they are discharged into waterways and are found in rivers, oceans, lakes, bays, and other bodies of water. In 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead Free Waters Act, which prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of rinse-off personal care products (e.g. toothpaste) containing plastic microbeads in the U.S. The deadline to stop manufacturing these products was July of 2017. It takes a while for all of the backlog to get out of the retail supply chain.
So what about microfibers? All clothing sheds tiny pieces when washed. Cotton and wool fibers are organic and break down completely in water. Microfibers is the term used for the tiny plastic pieces that come from clothes made of synthetic materials such as polyester. These fibers make their way into the ocean from your washing machine and do not break down completely. Instead, like microbeads, microfibers are not filtered out when wastewater is treated.
A study in 2015 by the San Francisco Estuary Institute looked at the San Francisco Bay and found that water treatment plants were letting approximately 7 million particles of microplastic per day into the Bay. Most of this plastic was microfibers and microbeads. Another study by U.C. Santa Barbara and Patagonia found that one fleece jacket could release up to 250,000 plastic fibers over its lifetime. There are roughly 89 million washing machines in the U.S. doing an average of nine loads of laundry per week. Each load of laundry can emit anywhere from 1,900 fibers to 200,000 fibers per load. Eliminating microfibers is a big challenge especially because about 60% of all clothing on the planet is made from polyester, a synthetic fabric that comes from fossil fuels and is known for its breathability, wicking ability, and stretchiness. Clothing companies need to figure out how to prevent fiber shedding, educate customers about microfibers, and develop new materials.
The most important thing you, as a customer, can do is to stop adding more microbeads, microfibers, and plastic trash to the environment!