What we mean when we say: Microplastics
'Microplastics'. We've all heard of them, but what do they mean for us and the waters we sail? Sailors, forget the saying out of sight, out of mind, just because we cannot see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there…
Our Scientific Lead, Libby, looks at where microplastics come from, why they are bad and what we can do about them.
It is a challenge to look around and see an object that isn’t made from or containing plastic. Plastic is everywhere in our daily lives and perhaps it isn’t then a surprise that plastics have been found in every corner of the world: in the deepest depths of the ocean (the Mariana Trench), within Antarctic ice, soil, human and animals bodies, and even the air around us.
Litter and floating plastic debris are eye sores that we are sadly all familiar with, however the tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics, below 5mm in size, that we cannot see are a far greater environmental hazard and pollution risk to all environmental spaces and species, including ourselves….
There are two ways microplastics are created; primary microplastics are intentionally created to be that size, such as cosmetic microbeads and pre-production nurdles - very small pellets of raw plastic which are then fused together to make plastic products. Many countries around the world already ban microbeads in products like body scrubs and face washes, being all too aware of the damage these tiny bits of plastic can cause.
Then, there are secondary microplastics which are created when common plastics weaken over time and break down. Plastic bottles, plastic packaging and textiles, for example, get exposed to water, waves, weather, UV radiation and chemicals, which break the plastic down into smaller and smaller pieces that hang around in land, water and even air for a long while. As plastic, big or small, doesn’t biodegrade, it never fully disappears, with a large portion of our plastic waste taking up to 400 YEARS to fully breakdown. Once in our environment, these little plastic pieces stay for a VERY long time…
Microplastics can also make their way into the environment from our car tyres, cigarette butts and even when we wash our clothes. Litter and tyre particles flow into drains during rain fall, then head into water treatment plants or straight into rivers and the sea. Every time you wash your face, or clean clothes in a washing machine, microplastics are also released into the water, which again flow into treatment plants. Scarily, it has been estimated that treatment plants receive around 10,000 microplastics per person per day. Whilst a lot of microplastics can get removed through the treatment processes, large quantities are still released into water bodies and our marine environments.
A huge amount of microplastics end up in the ocean, ~80% of which comes directly from what we do on land. It can be easy to see how plastic enters the ocean when we see overflowing bins, litter on beaches, or hear about cargo being lost at sea but due to plastics pervasive and persistent nature, even the plastic you throw away hundreds of miles away from the coast could make its way into the sea and marine environments.
Microplastics are particularly bad for the environment - they are difficult to clean up, they invade every environment and as they get smaller and smaller the ease of being ingested by animals, and ourselves, increases.
So, we know plastic doesn’t breakdown naturally or quickly, but why should we care?
- Plastic is not a natural substance
Plastic is made from a variety of chemicals and substances which don’t occur naturally in any environment. During the plastic manufacturing processes, chemicals called ‘additives’ are added to plastics to create the desired product (a well-known example is the controversial ‘BPA’ – bisphenol A). These chemicals then get released wherever the plastic ends up. Introducing plastic, no matter how large or small to an ecosystem, is highly likely to cause damage as it degrades and releases the chemical toxins it holds.
- Microplastics get eaten
Fish, marine mammals and sea birds, young and old, are ingesting these tiny shards of plastic waste.
The chemicals in microplastics have been reported to be highly damaging to marine species, causing a reduction in their feeding activity, impact on their hormone levels and reproductive systems, and other toxic side effects that have led to reduced population sizes. A review by National Geographic shows that microplastic is the first thing that many fish larvae are eating when they are born.
Not only are individual species impacted by their own direct consumption of microplastics, but the ocean and indeed whole planet it one huge food chain, meaning if a big proportion of them are eating plastic, it leads to plastic travelling through much of the rest of the system, too.
And at the very top of the food chain, are human beings…
- We consume a credit card of plastic, each, a week.
Yup. In 2019, WWF found that us humans are consuming a bank card equivalent of plastic EACH, every week. Microplastics are unfortunately now in the food we eat, the water we drink and even the air we breathe.
(Whilst studies aren’t conclusive as the impact microplastics have on the human body, they have been shown to be pretty toxic on animal and marine species, so far – see above.)
- Microplastics can transport chemicals and viruses
A hidden issue of microplastics is that when they get flushed in water through to treatment plants, the microplastics are exposed to a range of natural and synthetic hormones and pharmaceutical chemicals that are released in our pee. Microplastics have a powerful ability to pick up these chemicals due to their high surface area and can transfer them around the marine environment, and even into the guts of animals that ingest them.
What we can do
Sailors, the answer is – we can do a lot! Whether on land, or onboard, remember the 3 R’s:
Here is what you need to know:
The best, quickest and most effective way to reduce the amount of microplastic litter and the crisis of global plastic pollution is by reducing our plastic consumption! If there is a reusable alternative, or a plastic-free version, opt for that. We can be using proper cutlery onboard instead of single-use plastic ones or cornstarch bin liners instead of plastic bags. All of these little steps have a massive positive impact, promise!
We already shared some quick and easy tips on how to get started on reducing our use of single- use plastic-such as getting a disposable cup instead of take-out coffee cups, bulk buying ingredients instead of lots of individual packets, and by reusing water bottles instead of plastic ones. We’ve even sorted a great reusable Clean Sailors tote bag for your provisions, so we can so no to the plastic bag and check-outs!
If you need to kit your boat out for the first time, or replace lost equipment, it gives you a great opportunity to use preloved items where possible or research into the most sustainable options - preloved boat fenders or rope made from natural fibres, for example.
Sailors, our small changes make great strides to turn off the plastic tap!
For our ocean, for our seas - let's be Clean Sailors.