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Unraveling the impact of microplastics in our oceans and bodies

Written by
Poppy Stringer
5
min read
August 23, 2023

The world's oceans, once perceived as vast and invincible, are now under threat from a danger that is invisible to the naked eye - microplastics. These minuscule plastic particles, measuring less than 5mm in size, have infiltrated marine ecosystems, posing a grave risk not only to marine life but also to human health. 92%  of plastic pollution found on the ocean's surface is microplastic and there are an estimated 50-70 trillion pieces of microplastic in the ocean. 

In this latest SKOOT Eco blog, we'll delve into the hidden dangers of these microplastics, tracing their journey from plastic pollution to the human body and exploring the urgent need for action.

What is the definition of Microplastics

The  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines microplastics as "tiny plastic particles that are smaller than five millimetres and are found in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution." This definition is similar to the general scientific consensus on what constitutes a microplastic.

The size threshold of fewer than 5 millimetres is commonly accepted across multiple organisations and scientific studies, although methodologies for measuring and studying these particles can vary. The UNEP and other international bodies use this definition as a basis for their research and policy recommendations concerning plastic pollution and its environmental impact.

How are microplastics formed

The journey of microplastics begins with the fragmentation of larger plastic items like bottles, bags, and packaging materials. These items eventually break down due to weathering and exposure to sunlight, creating smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny plastic fragments can also be intentionally manufactured at small sizes for certain industrial purposes, such as micro-beads in personal care products or microfibres in textiles.

These tiny particles find their way into rivers, lakes, and oceans through various pathways, ultimately forming an invisible yet pervasive form of pollution.

The 5 Impacts On Marine Life 

Once in the oceans, microplastics pose a huge threat to marine ecosystems. 

  1. Ingestion 
    Marine organisms, ranging from plankton to large mammals, mistake these particles for food. As microplastics accumulate in the digestive tracts of these organisms, they can cause blockages, reduced feeding efficiency, malnutrition, and even death. This can disrupt entire food webs, as smaller organisms are consumed by larger ones, spreading the impact throughout the ecosystem.
  2. Toxicity 
    Microplastics also contain toxins and pollutants due to their chemical formulation, when marine organisms ingest microplastics, they may also ingest these harmful substances. As microplastics break down further in the digestive tract, these toxins can be released, causing physiological stress and potentially leading to various health issues.
  3. Bioaccumulation
    As smaller organisms are consumed by larger predators, microplastics can bioaccumulate in higher concentrations in the bodies of these top predators. This bioaccumulation can lead to significant health risks for these animals, as well as for humans who consume seafood at the top of the food chain.
  4. Behavioural changes 
    Some research suggests that microplastics can alter the behaviour of marine organisms. For instance, fish exposed to microplastics in their environment might exhibit changes in swimming behaviour, foraging patterns, and other essential activities. These behavioural changes can have cascading effects on population dynamics and ecosystem stability. 
  5. Impacts on coral reefs
    Even coral reefs, one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems, are not immune to the impact of microplastics. Microplastics can smother coral reefs, interfering with their ability to thrive and grow. Coral polyps may also consume microplastics, which can lead to stress and decreased resilience to other environmental threats like bleaching.

Microplastics pose a range of threats to marine organisms, from the smallest plankton to the largest marine mammal and the impact of microplastics on marine life is a growing concern that highlights the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the potential long-term consequences of plastic pollution.

However, microplastics also pose huge health risks to the human population. 

The 3 Impacts On Humans 

The potential effects of microplastics on human health are an emerging area of concern and scientific research. While our understanding is still evolving, there is growing evidence that microplastics can pose risks to humans through various pathways.

  1. Ingestion through food
    Microplastics can enter the human body through the consumption of contaminated seafood and water. Fish and shellfish that have ingested microplastics could transfer these particles to humans when they are consumed. This raises concerns about the potential for human ingestion of microplastics and any associated toxins that may be present on their surfaces.
  2. Inhalation
    Microplastics have been found in the air, and there is a possibility that people could inhale these particles, especially in urban areas with high levels of plastic pollution. While the long-term health effects of inhaling microplastics are not fully understood, there are concerns about respiratory issues and potential inflammation.
  3. Drinking Water
    Microplastics have been detected in tap water, bottled water, and even in some brands of bottled water. While the health implications of consuming microplastics through drinking water are still under investigation, the presence of these particles in our drinking water raises concerns about their potential accumulation in the body over time, much like it does for marine life. 

Both marine life and humans are threatened by microplastics and the growing issue of single-use plastics and plastic pollution. However, the difference is, we are responsible for this crisis with our overproduction and unsustainable habits surrounding plastic and unfortunately, marine life falls victim to our actions. 

4 ways we can reduce the invisible threat of microplastics?

  1. Reducing plastic use
    One of the primary solutions is to reduce plastic consumption. This includes using reusable bags, bottles, and containers, as well as advocating for the reduction of single-use plastics. 
  2. Promoting recycling and innovation
    Encouraging recycling and supporting innovation in materials science can lead to the development of more sustainable materials that break down naturally and do not contribute to microplastic pollution.
  3. Regulation and bans
    Governments and regulatory bodies should implement strict regulations on the use of microplastics in personal care products and other industries. Bans on single-use plastics, like plastic straws and utensils, can also contribute to reducing microplastic pollution. Whilst this is already taking place in some countries it needs to be stricter and more widespread. 
  4. Educational awareness
    Raising awareness about the dangers of microplastics is crucial. Educational programs and campaigns can inform the public about the sources and impacts of microplastic pollution, motivating individuals to make environmentally conscious choices.

How SKOOT helps stop Ocean Plastic

By collaborating with Plastic Bank, we actively engage in the collection of plastic waste located within a 50-kilometre radius of ocean-prone regions. Our collective efforts involve communities coming together to retrieve plastic waste from diverse sources such as shorelines, river edges, and households. This direct action significantly contributes to the reduction of plastic pollution in our oceans.

The unseen threat of microplastics in our oceans and bodies demands immediate action. As these tiny particles traverse the intricate web of ecosystems, they expose marine life and human health to grave risks. By adopting a combination of personal responsibility, regulatory measures, and technological advancements, we can work collectively to combat this invisible menace. The time to act is now, for the health of our oceans and the well-being of generations to come.

Poppy Stringer

Our eco-conscious blog writer. Passionate about sustainability, she's on a mission to combat ecosystem decline with insightful blogs, driven by her concern for the planet's future.