Plastic is the most abundant type of marine debris found in our oceans and the great lakes. Plastic trash cans come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but those less than 5 millimetres in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called "microplastics."
Little is known about microplastics and their effects as it is a new field of study. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is leading NOAA's efforts to study this issue. Standardized field methods for collecting sediment, sand, and surface water microplastic samples have been developed and are being tested. Ultimately, field and laboratory protocols allow for a global comparison of the amount of microplastics released into the environment. This is the first step in determining the final distribution, impact, and fate of this debris.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources. This includes large waste plastics that break down into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, a type of microplastic, Microsphere, is a very small piece of polyethylene plastic produced that is added as a scrub to some cleaning products and health and beauty products such as toothpaste. These small particles easily pass through water filtration systems and reach the oceans and the great lakes, and pose a potential threat to aquatic life.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic microspheres first appeared in personal care products about 50 years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients. In 2012, this topic was still relatively unclear, with a large number of products using microplastic beads in the market and little consumer awareness.
According to new research, by Australian Federal Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, there may be 14.4 million tonnes of microplastics on the ocean floor. The results show that the seafloor has more than twice as much plastic as the surface of the water. After investigating the area off the south coast of Australia,scientists have made estimates. The amount of microplastic in the deposit is 25 times the previously expected amount.
Experts say that a plastic circular economy is needed to address this issue. Given the estimated 14.4 million tonnes of microplastics on the ocean floor, marine plastic pollution can be an even greater problem than initially feared.
How microplastics are harming oceans?
Due to the specific properties of microplastics such as microscopic size, attractive colour and high buoyancy, these small debris are easily accessible to fish. Fish mistake these fragments for plankton and other natural prey and ingest microplastics which harms their physiology, reproduction cycle and life cycle.
Experiments have shown that microplastics harm not only turtles and birds, but also aquatic life. Microplastics block the digestive tract, reduce the urge to eat, change eating behaviour, and reduce growth and fertility. Their stomachs are full of plastic and some starve to death.
In addition to mechanical effects, microplastics also have chemical effects. This is because airborne pollutants that invade the ocean from land, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals, tend to adhere to the surface.Some of these chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors-chemicals that interfere with normal hormonal function and even contribute to weight gain. Flame retardants can affect the development of the foetal brain. Other compounds that adhere to plastic can cause cancer and birth defects.
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