Microplastic = macroproblem
A century after the invention of plastic, it’s hard to imagine a world without the ubiquitous material in our everyday lives. It’s the baby’s pacifier. It’s the nylon fibers in our clothes. It’s the cell phone, laptop, iPod and television remote. It’s the ballpoint pen and credit card, the grocery bag and food container.
Clearly, plastic in all its forms has brought humankind all manner of affordability, durability and convenience. However, this amazing substance is a growing ecological threat.
Scientists began describing the problem of plastic debris in the environment in the 1960s. By the 1970s, researchers were reporting albatrosses ingesting plastic bottle tops and balloons, which blocked digestion and caused them to starve, as well as dolphins and turtles becoming entangled in fishing nets and drowning.
Some 40 years later, a small group of ecologists, marine biologists and other scientists are bringing awareness to an even greater threat — the widespread accumulation of small fragments of plastic known as “microplastic.”
International scientists met at UW Tacoma in fall 2008 to exchange research on this global pollutant. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsored the three-day international conference, bringing many of the best minds in the field together for the first time. They left knowing that far more research is needed to quantify microplastics’ prevalence, identify its sources and understand its full effects.
“In the past four decades, we’ve come to understand the ecological issues of large flotsam, but we lack substantive evidence on the consequences of the smallest plastic particles for marine ecosystems,” says Dr. Joel Baker, professor and Port of Tacoma Chair of environmental science at UW Tacoma. “We need to put energies into research—investigations of the kind that will allow the scientific community to draw solid conclusions.”
Without definitive data it is difficult to rank microplastic’s effects on the environment with other known pollutants, Baker points out. But the occurrence of tiny plastics in global oceans and their potential for transporting toxic compounds may come to rival the worldwide prevalence of DDT (now banned in the United States and other countries) and its adverse effects on wildlife.
“Initial findings suggest that microplastics, like DDT and other ‘persistent pollutants,’ do not completely break down in the environment,” Baker says. “What is more, plastic particles in the ocean appear to have the capacity to absorb and desorb organic chemicals.”
Various studies have suggested that plastic specks in the water and sediment appear to absorb highly toxic and pervasive pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT. If the oceans’ smallest organisms are dining on plastics dosed up with toxins, then highly concentrated chemicals could possibly accumulate up the food chain.
The pioneering scientists studying the effects of small plastics on the environment do not advocate for life without plastic. However, they do hope to make a robust case for living in a world where plastic, in all its forms, causes as little ecological degradation to the planet as possible.
Written by Filiz Satir. Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Terrain.