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Microplastics, Plastic Pollution and Effects on Marine Life

Updated on March 21, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a biology teacher who is interested in environmental issues. She is very concerned about the harmful effects of pollution.

Plastic is so common today that it may even be used to make the flowers that decorate our homes.
Plastic is so common today that it may even be used to make the flowers that decorate our homes. | Source

Plastic and Microplastic Pollution

Plastics are very useful and popular materials. They may be dangerous to animals when they are discarded, however, especially when they enter the ocean. Marine animals can become trapped in large pieces of plastic garbage. Both large and small pieces of plastic may enter their bodies, injuring or killing them. Plastics also leach dangerous chemicals in seawater and perhaps inside an animal's body as well.

People who refuse to buy plastic or who reuse plastic items if they do enter their home should certainly be encouraged, but they may be shocked to learn that they are probably still releasing plastic debris into the environment.

Plastic degrades to produce tiny microplastic particles. This degradation happens in the home as well as in nature. Clothes made of synthetic fibres release microplastic particles when we wash them. Microplastic particles are present in some cosmetics and toiletries and are flushed down the drain when we wash or brush our teeth. The microplastic may eventually reach the ocean, since water treatment plants are unable to remove it. Microplastics are produced deliberately for some industrial uses and can also pollute the environment.

The Growing Problem of Microplastic Pollution

What is Plastic?

Plastic is a synthetic or semi-synthetic material which is molded and shaped when soft and then solidified. Plastics are made of organic polymers. A polymer is a long molecule made of repeating units. In chemistry, the term “organic” means that the units contain carbon.

Plastics can be made from a wide range of chemicals, including polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyamide (nylon), polyethylene, polyethylene glycol (PEG), polypropylene and polycarbonate. One form of acrylic is poly(methyl methacrylate), or PMMA. Acrylics and polyesters are families of plastics.

Plastic bottle caps collected for recycling
Plastic bottle caps collected for recycling | Source

Plastics are so ubiquitous in our environment that it's hard for someone to avoid absolutely all sources, even with the best intent. It's important to recycle or repurpose plastic wherever possible and - if appropriate - to lobby companies to use environmentally safer materials.

Plastic Degradation

It’s often said that plastics don’t degrade. They do in fact break down, although generally very slowly. (There are some degradable plastics that break up faster than normal plastics.) The long polymers that make up the structure of a plastic gradually break up into shorter and shorter polymers. These degradation products may still be dangerous to living things, however.

Additives used to make the plastic are released as the plastic degrades. These additives include potentially harmful substances such as bisphenol A (or BPA), which is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, and phthalates, which are added to certain plastics to make them pliable and are also present in some cosmetics. Both of these substances are endocrine (hormone) disruptors, but whether or not low levels of the chemicals harm adult humans is a controversial topic. However, many researchers agree that the chemicals are dangerous for a fetus, young children and some animals.

It's definitely time to think about plastic pollution.
It's definitely time to think about plastic pollution. | Source

How Do Microplastics Differ From Plastics?

Plastics are classified according to their size. Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 mm in size (or less than 1 mm in size in some classification schemes). Nanoplastic particles are even smaller. Like microplastics, their effects on humans and animals need to be explored. A common method of classifying plastics is shown in the table below.

Plastic Classification
> 100 mm
100 mm to 5 mm
5 mm to 0.330 mm
< 0.330 mm

Microplastics in the Ocean

The fate of microplastics in the ocean
The fate of microplastics in the ocean | Source

Primary Sources of Microplastic

There are two general classes of microplastics. Primary microplastics are those that are deliberately created by humans for a specific purpose. Secondary microplastics are produced by the natural breakdown of larger pieces of plastic in the environment.

Some examples of primary microplastics include the following. The first source is often classified as a primary microplastic even though it arises due to degradation. The degradation arises due to human activity instead of occuring in nature.

  • Polyester, acrylic and nylon are examples of plastics used to make clothing. Research suggests that one load of laundry can release as many as 1,900 plastic microfibres. Microplastic dust can also be released from plastic ropes and other plastic items as a result of wear and tear.
  • Cosmetics designed to exfoliate skin often contain "microbeads" made of plastic. These enter the environment after we wash, shower or take a bath.
  • Plastic microbeads are also present in some toothpastes and enter the environment after we have brushed our teeth.
  • Microplastic pellets are used in industrial processes. They may escape into the environment accidently or be deliberately dumped.

Up until relatively recently, there has been a widespread tendency to treat the ocean as a convenient place to dispose of all sorts of unwanted material, either deliberately or unwittingly.

— The GESAMP Organization

Secondary Sources of Microplastic

Plastic that produces secondary microplastics arises from many sources. Accidental release of plastic into the ocean is bad, but deliberate release is even more frustrating. Even today, when people are becoming more aware of pollution, some ships still throw their garbage overboard. Dumping of plastic garbage by communities, individuals and industries, especially near or in the sea, is a big contributor to the plastic debris in the ocean. Naturals disasters like floods and storms can also transfer plastic to the ocean. Another problem is that nylon fishing lines are degraded in seawater, releasing microplastic particles.

Plastic waste on a a Hawaiian black rock beach
Plastic waste on a a Hawaiian black rock beach | Source

Potential Dangers of Microplastics

The harm caused by large pieces of plastic debris that enter the ocean is well known. Animals may become entangled in the plastic or may mistake it for food. The swallowed plastic may block the animals' intestines, starve them or suffocate them. It may fill their stomachs and take the place of real food. The effects of microplastics on living things are uncertain, but researchers are concerned about their potential influence on the health of marine organisms and perhaps even on us.

Scientists know that microplastics are accumulating in oceans around the world and in ocean sediments, that they take a long time to degrade completely and that they are being ingested by marine animals at the bottom of the food chain. They have also discovered that microplastic is present in the bodies of at least some fish. In addition, scientists know that chemical pollutants stick to the pieces of microplastic and are ingested along with the plastic particles. These pollutants include dioxins, DDT and PCB molecules (polychlorinated biphenyls).

In lab experiments on isolated tissue, microplastic particles have entered cells and caused cell damage. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will do the same thing in an intact body, where normal body processes may neutralize the particles.

Microplastic particles might be harmful to marine animals and to us if we eat contaminated sea food, but investigators need to demonstrate this in their research. This research is very important. If microplastic is found to be harmful, hopefully more stringent and better monitored regulations with respect to plastic waste will be established.

Plastic pollution on a beach in the Caribbean
Plastic pollution on a beach in the Caribbean | Source

So much microplastic material is accumulating in the ocean and it's made of such tiny particles that we will never be able to remove it. The best that we can do is to prevent the formation of any new microplastic. Reducing the amount of megaplastic pollution should be a big help in this process.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Any discussion of plastic and microplastic debris in the ocean really needs to mention the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This patch is a huge, swirling mass of plastic and microplastic material trapped in a gyre in the North Pacific Ocean. It's sometimes referred to as the largest landfill in the world. It's actually made of two areas called the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch is larger. Its name is sometimes used as a synonym for "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

The Eastern Garbage patch is very large, but its size is hard to measure and seems to vary. It's been described as being equal to the size of Texas, equal to twice the size of Texas or even equal to the size of Europe. The large pieces of plastic debris in the region are very obvious, although they don't form a continuous cover over the water as some people imagine. This is why the garbage patch can't be seen in satellite photos. Most people are unaware that there is a large quantity of hidden microplastic material in the area. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is shameful evidence of our love of plastic and our carelessness about its fate and its effect on other creatures when it's no longer useful.

The Eastern Garbage Patch and The Plastiki Expedition

Vital Questions That Need to be Answered

Studying microplastic is a relatively new endeavour for researchers. There's much that scientists don't yet know about this form of plastic. Do the plastic particles hurt living things? Do the pollutants that they carry harm animals? Do the plastic particles and the pollutants become more concentrated as they move up the food chain? Do they affect us when we eat marine animals? These are important questions which still need to be answered.

Further Reading

A PDF Microplastic report from GESAMP (Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection)

© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Peg. Sadly, I have to agree with your conclusion. We are destroying our planet. It's a frightening time, for many reasons.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Your information here is valuable and important. The environmental implications for the amount of plastic we are using and discarding are long term and frightening. It makes me sad to see examples of fish, turtles and wildlife suffering the consequences. I remember a time when plastic was less common. Even sodas came in recyclable glass bottles and so did milk and many other products. We are destroying our own home planet.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and for the comment, b. Malin. The microplastic situation is scary. I hope the problem is solved soon!

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 5 years ago

      What an Interesting and Informative Hub on Plastics Alicia. A little Scary to say the least, and yet most of us use Plastics in our everyday Lives. Great Videos as well. Thanks for the warning and dangers that are associated with these products.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Karanda. Yes, avoiding plastic and choosing safe personal care products can often be challenging! Thanks for the comment.

    • Karanda profile image

      Karen Wilton 5 years ago from Australia

      Great Hub AliciaC. You just know when you are using these products there is something not quite right. Let's hope they get it right one day!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Yes, DzyMsLizzy, that’s what worries me. Of course we should stop releasing plastic into the environment for the sake of ocean wildlife, but there should be another compelling reason for us to solve the plastic problem as soon as possible - the unknown consequences of microplastic and toxin buildup.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Kris. Thank you for the comment. Yes, the general public sees the problems creating by visible plastic items being discarded, but are unaware of the microplastic particles that are being created and the toxins that are escaping from the plastic. The future is uncertain. As you say, perhaps bacteria and other components of the environment will be able to neutralize the toxins - or perhaps not!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      You are very welcome! And, yes, isn't that always the way of The Powers That Be? "We don't know, so instead of calling a halt until we find out, we'll just keep doing what we're doing until it's too late, and the problem will be harder or impossible to solve. Grrr..

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the votes and the shares, DzyMsLizzy! I appreciate them. Yes, the release of microplastic particles from laundry and nanoplastic particles from cosmetics are certainly very scary! We may be affecting the future in a way that will be very difficult to control, although it's not yet known how seriously the environment is being affected by these particles. The problem is that while we're waiting for the results of scientific research we are continuing to pollute the environment with microplastics.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      Good hub! Sadly there are toxins in plastics that can leach out over time. How the environment handles these toxins will probably only become evident over time. Some bacteria can break down certain toxins but will it be enough? Most likely not.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting hub. Bookmarked to read again later and watch the videos, which look very compelling.

      I had heard about the GPGP, but releasing nano-plastics by laundering our clothing? Wow! That is scary!

      Voted up, useful, interesting and shared both here and on my Face Book page.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, vote and share, Nell. Yes, I find the presence of microplastic in the ocean very worrying too. Large pieces of plastic are bad enough, but at least there is some hope of removing them from the ocean and the shores because they can be picked up. I don't know how we can remove the widespread, tiny microplastic particles that researchers say are accumulating in ocean water and sediments. I very much hope that they discover that these particles aren't a significant threat to living things!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, Wow! the size of Texas? I never even realised that there was such a place in the ocean! as for plastics being in clothes, getting into the food chain, either human animal or fish was beyond me! we must do something about this and pretty quick, plastic in its form that we have today wasn't even around a hundred years ago, so we can go back to not using it, trouble is it comes down to money again, voted up, and shared, nell