Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Big Problem with Little Plastics

Of all plastic materials targeted by the Plastic Free Waters Partnership, microplastics are one of the most insidious due to their pervasive abundance and diminutive size. Ranging from five millimeters (the diameter of a pencil eraser) to microscopic scales, these tiny pieces of plastic are estimated to make up ~90 percent of plastic pollution in pelagic environments (Eriksen et al., 2013). Microplastics are generally the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking apart via ultraviolet radiation (i.e., photodegradation), as well as the physical forces of wave and wind action. Additional sources of microplastics include manufactured materials such as preproduction plastic nurdles, hygiene and cleaning products, which contain plastic microbeads, and synthetic textiles made of plastic microfibers that shed when they’re laundered. These manufactured microplastics are not captured by current wastewater treatment technologies, and so pass into aquatic environments where they accumulate over time .

Microplastics may lack the visual impact of other plastic pollutants, but their effects are no less profound. Other pollutants present in aquatic ecosystems, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), have been found to adhere to and concentrate in certain microplastics. These toxin laden materials are mistakenly consumed by aquatic organisms and bioaccumulate through the food web (Alomar & Deudero, 2017; Rummel et al., 2016). This raises serious questions about species and ecosystem impacts, as well as health concerns for humans who subsist on seafood-based diets.

What We’re Doing

To increase our overall understanding of microplastics pollution and the potential environmental impacts, the Microplastics Working Group has adopted the following goals:

  • Identify research gaps and priorities regarding microplastics
  • Develop and promote standardized methodologies for microplastics sampling and analysis
  • Educate various stakeholders and audiences about microplastics pollution
  • Engage manufacturers and policymakers to develop pre-consumer solutions