In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, an island exists twice the size of Texas. Many people have never heard of this island, but it harbors frequent visitors on ships and exists with the biodiverse communities of the Pacific Ocean. People aren’t welcome on this island, not because the island doesn’t allow visitors, but because they wouldn’t be able to survive on it. It’s an island that sinks, moves, and grows bigger everyday. What exactly is this island? The visitors on ships aren’t sailers or tourists - they’re scientists. And while the island exists with biodiversity, it is surely killing biodiversity. This island, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t made of rock - it's a 1.6 million square kilometer island of trash and plastic.
It is a well known fact that humans create a lot of plastic, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is proof of that. Virtually everything manufactured contains plastics, and humankind relies on plastics heavily; they’re used in a myriad of ways and in a plethora of products and packaging. Because of our heavy dependence on these materials, we have engineered plastics to become strong, resilient, and durable to survive everyday use. While this engineering has led to some societal benefits, it comes at a cost. Plastics, especially single use plastics, are extremely persistent in the environment and cover almost every part of the world today. These materials can degrade habitat quality and pose health risks to wildlife and humans. Macroplastics, or plastics that are visible and large, have been a known concern due to their ability to kill wildlife from entanglement, strangulation, etc. It wasn’t until recently, however, that a new type of plastic pollutant was discovered in the world. While these plastics aren’t as visible as Macroplastics, they’re virtually everywhere and the leading cause of more long term, chronic health issues related to both humans and biodiversity. These new plastics are known as Microplastics, and they pose a great danger to every aspect of human health and the environment.
As the name might suggest, Microplastics are tiny; they are defined by NOAA as plastics that are less than five millimeters in length. There are different types of Microplastics as well. Primary Microplastics are manufactured for an application and engineered to be tiny, and they include examples such as nylon rope, cosmetic products, and some textiles. Secondary Microplastics are the weathered bits of macroplastics, and these form from the gradual degradation of plastic from the Sun and water bodies. Microplastics pose serious hazards to the environment in a multitude of ways. Like all other plastics, Microplastics can’t chemically degrade in the environment, and their interaction with the elements can cause dangerous chemicals to be exposed to wildlife and humans. The plastics serve as transmitters for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that can attach themselves to these plastics or leach out from the plastic itself. POPs contain many hazardous chemicals, from BPA and phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, to PCB, a carcinogen and toxin. Many animals and fish will confuse Microplastics for bits of food and consume them. This can lead to bioaccumulation of Microplastics up the food chain, increasing the concentration of dangerous chemicals in organisms and leading to death.
Microplastics are very dangerous materials, but that isn’t the only cause of concern - they are everywhere. Because of their durability and size, Microplastics can travel far distances with the help of ocean currents, wind gusts, or humans. They have been found in virtually every place imaginable in the world. They’ve been found in the Arctic, embedded in geological ice cores. They’ve been found at lowest depths of the oceans, where virtually no light or liveable conditions exist. They’ve been found in animals’ remains and in the stems of plants. They’ve been found in the soil humanity relies on for agriculture and almost all of the food humanity consumes. It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that they’ve also been found in humans - in blood vessels and stomachs, where their toxic makeup wreaks havoc on the human gut and Lymphatic System. There truly isn’t any place on Earth that hasn’t been touched by Microplastics.
While Microplastics are an emerging concern for the world due to their size, persistence, and chemical composition, solutions have come about to lower their presence in the environment and immobilize them. Marine plastic pollution is a major threat to the world’s oceans, and Microplastics largely contribute to aquatic deaths and other illnesses faced by marine life. Ocean skimmers have been used extensively to collect surface Microplastics in many areas where contamination is rampant. These collections of plastics are then properly disposed of in landfills. Another solution involves the use of a flocculating agent to collect and trap Microplastics in a paste-like substance. This prevents the plastics from traveling and provides cleanup for deeper aquatic environments and even urban systems, such as sewer networks. An increase in the use of commercial bioplastics also decreases synthetic plastic use, preventing Microplastics from forming in the first place. Plastic pollution, especially Microplastics, is a global issue that the world must address to promote both public health and the health of the ecosystems humanity relies on for a variety of services. While the issue is large in severity and scale, humankind is resilient and innovative, and solutions will be found.