Microplastics are polluting the ocean at a staggering rate
If you throw a polyester sweatshirt in the washing machine, it is not quite as it was. All this agitation loosens the plastic microfibers, which your machine discharges to a waste water treatment facility. Any particles that are not filtered out are pumped out to sea. Like other forms of microplastic – broken down bottles and bags, paint chips and pellets known as noodles—microfiber pollution in the oceans has reflected the exponential growth of plastic production: humanity is now making a billion pounds of fabric per year. According to World Economic Forumproduction could triple from 2016 levels by 2050.
A new analysis provides the broadest quantification yet of exactly how much of these substances are contaminating the ocean surface. An international team of researchers calculates that between 82,000,000,000 and 358,000 billion plastic particles, or a total of 2.4 to 10.8 billion pounds, are floating around the world… and this only in the part upper sea water.
This also only counts pieces up to a third of a millimeter long, even though microplastics can get much, much smaller, and they become much more numerous as they do. (Microplastics are defined as particles less than 5 millimeters long.) Scientists are now able to detect nanoplastics in the environment, which are measured on the scale of a millionth of a meter, small enough to penetrate cells, even if it remains difficult and expensive to count them. If this new study had considered the the smallest of plastics, the number of ocean particles would no longer be in the trillions. “We’re talking quintillions, probably, it’s there, if not more,” says Scott Coffin, a researcher at the California State Water Resources Control Board and co-author of the study, which was published Today in the magazine PLOS ONE.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” says Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute and lead author of the study. “If we’re going to talk about particle count there, we’re not even looking at nanoscale particles. And that’s really consistent with all the research on human health impacts. Scientists have only just begun to study these effects, but they are already finding that the smallest microplastics move easily through the body, showing up in our blood, intestines, lungs, placentas and even first infant feces.
Eriksen and Coffin performed their quantification by gathering tons of past data on plastic samples from the world’s oceans. They combined this with data they collected during their own ocean expeditions. In total, the researchers used nearly 12,000 samples of plastic particle concentrations, spanning between the years 1979 and 2019. This allowed them to calculate not only how much might exist, but also how these particles are changing. concentrations over time.
They found that between 1990 and 2005, the number of particles fluctuated. This may be due to the effectiveness of international agreements, such as the 1988 regulations limiting plastic pollution from ships. “This is the first time we have evidence that these international treaties on plastic pollution have actually been effective,” says Coffin.