Plastic Pollution: Microplastics

Oceans are being used as junkyards for centuries to dump unwanted materials and waste products including plastic wastage.  It is obvious that the volume of material will continue to increase with a growing population as the global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.616 billion in 2018. It is expected to keep growing, and estimates have put the total population at 8.6 billion by mid-2030, 9.8 billion by mid-2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

At the same time the demand for manufactured goods and packaging, to contain or protect food and goods, increased throughout the twentieth century. Large-scale production of plastics began in the 1950s and plastics have become widespread, used in a bewildering variety of applications. The many favourable properties of plastics, including durability and low cost, make plastics the obvious choice in many situations. Unfortunately, society has been slow to anticipate the need for dealing adequately with end-of-life plastics, to prevent plastics entering the marine environment. As a result there has been a substantial volume of debris added to the ocean over the past 60 years, covering a very wide range of sizes (metres to nanometres in diameter).

Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in oceans and Great Lakes. Plastic debris can come in all shapes and sizes, but those that are less than five millimeters in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called “microplastics.”

According to a report published by the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) there are two types of microplastics – Primary and Secondary.

  • Primary Microplastics: The particles that were originally manufactured to be that size. Primary Microplastics include industrial “scrubbers” used to blast clean surfaces, plastic powers used in moulding, micro-beads in cosmetic formulation, and plastic nanoparticles used in a variety of industrial processes. In addition, spherical or cylindrical virgin resin pellets, typically around 5 mm in diameter, are widely used during plastics manufacture and transport of the basic resin ‘feedstock’ prior to production of plastic products; and
  • Secondary Microplastics: The particles that were resulted from the breakdown of large items. Secondary microplastics result from the fragmentation and weathering of larger plastic items. This can happen during the use phase of products such as textiles, paint and tyres, or once the items have been released into the environment.

It is scary to learn that: As much as 5 trillion microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. Up to 80 percent of litter in the oceans are made of plastic. Furthermore, according to estimates 99 percent of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050.

The researchers found evidence that small pieces of plastic can serve as a vector for chemicals to get into the bodies of marine animals, where they can accumulate in the fat cells of animals. Hypothetically, plastic and chemicals are also making their way into people who eat seafood. What’s more, chemicals accumulate in animals as one moves up the food chain in a “trophic transfer,” meaning that top predators like bluefin tuna absorb the greatest amounts of toxins.  For example:

  • “If a bivalve contaminated with microplastics from the surrounding environment is preyed upon by a crustacean, the microplastic load would be transferred to the crustacean, if this crustacean is preyed upon by a fish the contaminant load may be passed to this next trophic level and so on,” said Hollman.

Peter Holloman, an expert on plastics in the food chain and one of the report’s three authors.  Holloman also stated that:

  • “Larger particles are not absorbed and will leave the gut. The particles smaller than 150 nanometers may be absorbed across the gut epithelium and may cause effects in the body. However, toxicological data on these effects are largely lacking.”

The scientists are even more concerned about the tiniest pieces of microplastic, called nanoplastic, that are not visible to the eye and which fish and shellfish, and ultimately humans, also consume.

The report of the study was reviewed by an international panel in Rome last year. The authors found that annual plastic production has skyrocketed since the early 1950s, reaching 322 million metric tons in 2015. In addition, 61 million tons of synthetic fibers for clothing, rope and other products were produced in 2016. The researchers wrote that this number is only expected to increase in the future, possibly doubling by 2025. An estimated 8 million tons of that plastic ends up in the ocean each year after being discarded.

  • “There is now a wide range of literature that shows microplastics can cause physical harm to organisms when ingested,” said Lucy Woodall, a marine biologist at Oxford University.

She recently coauthored an analysis of sediment cores that shows that the seafloor is a significant repository for microplastic. In a second study Woodall and several other scientists from the United Kingdom found plastic fibers inside seafloor organisms when they dissected them.

Nearly 513 million tons of plastics wind up in the oceans every year out of which 80 percent is from just 20 countries in the World. While China, India and America are in the list of contributors to this havoc, other countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa contribute their own share in a considerable manner.  According to a recent research, the top 5 polluters are China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

A detailed look at the share of each country to this marine pollution gives out a clearer picture of the major culprits. While China is a major polluter, contributing 8.82 tons of plastic wastage that wind up in the earth’s seas annually, it is certainly not alone. The contribution of other offending countries are Indonesia (3.22 tons), the Philippines (1.88 tons), Vietnam (1.83 tons), Sri Lanka (1.59 tons), Thailand (1.03 tons), Egypt (0.97 tons), Malaysia (0.94 tons), Nigeria (0.85 tons), Bangladesh (0.79 tons), and South Africa (0.63 tons).

Microplastics have been found in almost every environment on the planet, and according to a Marketplace investigation, they are also in Canada’s leading bottled water brands.

Researchers at McGill University tested a sampling of Aquafina, Dasani, Eska, Naya and Nestle Pure Life brands, which, according to Euromonitor International, had combined Canadian sales of more than $1 billion in water last year.

The companies market their products with labels and promotions that suggest purity, but microplastics were found in each brand, even in glass bottles of Eska water — albeit at lower levels than its plastic counterpart.

  • “The fact that we have plastic in a bottle of water that is glass suggests that the plastic is not just coming from … the bottle itself or the [bottle] cap,” said Nathalie Tufenkji, who led the research at McGill’s Biocolloids and Surfaces Laboratory.
  • “It could be coming from the environment where you’re having the bottling process take place.”

Researchers found 93 per cent of all bottles tested contained some sort of microplastic, including polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Researchers examined 11 different brands of water purchased in 9 countries.  The bottled water industry is estimated to be worth nearly $200 billion a year, surpassing sugary sodas as the most popular beverage in many countries. But its perceived image of cleanliness and purity is being challenged by a global investigation that found the water tested is often contaminated with tiny particles of plastic.

  • “Our love affair with making single-use disposable plastics out of a material that lasts for literally centuries — that’s a disconnect, and I think we need to rethink our relationship with that,” says Prof. Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher who carried out the laboratory work at the State University of New York (SUNY).

Mason’s team tested 259 bottles of water purchased in nine countries (none were bought in Canada). Though many brands are sold internationally, the water source, manufacturing and bottling process for the same brand can differ by country.

Canada will use its presidency of the G7 to try to persuade the world’s richest and most industrialized countries to adopt ambitious goals for plastics recycling and waste reduction.

  • “We are looking at a zero-plastics-waste charter,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Wednesday from Cancun, Mexico, where she was at an international conference on the world’s oceans.

Here is a reality – plastic contamination in the oceans and inland waters is a serious problem affecting not only the aquatic environment but also humans. Consumers should be aware that according to the current state of knowledge on the toxicity of microplastics, the risk associated with the consumption of fishery and aquaculture products contaminated with microplastics is negligible and their benefits are known to be numerous. Nonetheless, preventive and corrective measures should be taken at international, governmental and consumer levels to evaluate the toxicity of common polymers, to reduce plastic use and encourage the use of alternative materials, recycling and the adoption of sustainable practices in using plastics and managing plastic pollution.