Answers to our questions often lie within nature, it is often found that we can take aspects of even the deadliest attributes of nature to improve our livelihoods. As anthropogenic activity continues to damage the environment, it is the time that we should use these aspects to help save our planet. Microplastic pollution has received a lot of attention in the media in the past couple of years, leading to the banning of the production of microbeads in the United Kingdom by 2018. However, even with this promise from the government to reduce their effects within our marine environment, there is still a magnificent presence of small plastic particles entering our waterways from the degrading of larger plastic pieces.
Small fragments of plastic have been discovered in waterways globally (microscope image shows microplastics found in the Charlton Brook Sheffield, UK). The UK Government proposed studies have shown that negative effects on species include: the filling of the stomach with plastic leading to potential starvation, desorption of toxic chemicals from the plastic into the organism, and the transfer of these issues up the trophic levels. As a response, scientists have been searching for ways to remove microplastics within water systems, however most of the ideas will cause significant harm to biodiversity (use of fine nets and dredging).
Micro-organisms have shown to effectively remove small plastic particles from water in a controlled environment, which was reported in 2016 by a team of scientists in Japan. It was discovered that the bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis could effectively break down small plastic particles of polyethylene terephthalate (commonly referred to as PET) at 30⁰c. With what seems to be a huge breakthrough in regard to tackling this global environmental issue, there has been little information emitted from scientists since then. Can this automatically be perceived as bad news?
Although it is clear that this is impossible to replicate within the marine environment – and work with different variations of microplastic – the idea of harnessing a (questionably) natural process, and the possibility of genetic engineering to modify the micro-organism is promising. On the other hand, these manufactures tiny lifeforms have the potential to be just as lethal as they are to be beneficial. With researcher Dr Mincer stating the experiment as “carefully done” last year, this may suggest some more time is needed for another potential breakthrough.
Overall, although the wait may be long we must cling onto this hope for the eradication of microplastic pollution. The thought of a future with clean oceans and healthy ecosystems is amazing.
All I seem to do at the moment is write my dissertation. A task I am sure many people have endured. As well as it crucifying a subject I was once interested in, it is all I can think about.
I dream (well…have nightmares) about microplastic pollution. Seriously.
So, because of this, I am venting (I’m sorry) all the annoying little facts about this topic that eat away at my brain, which the public are not informed about…and I wanted an excuse to make a list. You’re welcome:
Microplastics are generally defined as plastic which is smaller than 5 mm in diameter.
Microplastics (or microbeads if you prefer) don’t just come from your exfoliators. These products seem to crop up a lot but manufactured (AKA primary) microplastics can also be found in toothpaste, cleaning products like cream cleaner and used for air blasting during manufacturing of everyday items.
Secondary microplastics are those which have come from a bigger plastic source (not manufactured that size). These can accumulate wherever plastic litter is collected, such as in a landfill or in the sea. They then degrade and become smaller and smaller until they are not visible to the naked eye. In my study, I divided these into three categories: fibres, thin angular pieces and thick angular pieces.
Washing your clothes results in microplastic pollution. Plymouth University conducted a study which showed that 700,000 synthetic fibres can be released into wastewater, from one use of a domestic washing machine. (So your acrylic and polyester clothes, you’ll struggle to have a 100% cotton wardrobe).
These microplastics can enter river systems through misconnections. These are when your pipes have been misconnected to lead to the wrong sewer and therefore lead into rivers via outflow pipes. The water which would normally be routed by the foul system to your local waste water treatment works… so think twice about paddling in your local stream on a hot day.
Once ingested the plastics can then stay in an organism’s stomach, providing no nutrition and taking up room which can lead to starvation. They can also be passed up the food chain to us.
People aren’t too scared of them because they haven’t caused any significant damage to human health…but it is just a matter of time.
I also thought it would be worth mentioning that yes, I did find microplastics in a local river (Charlton Brook Sheffield) along with a shit load of…well…shit. Look at the picture I’ve included (my own) all the plastics in there are 0.3 mm – 5 mm. Got some big-ass fibres in there (and an exoskeleton which wasn’t dissolved by my concoction of death*). Are these from your clothes? Write a comment and let us know.
This day and age seems to be devoted to helping combat climate change, and what with this being a big part of my degree I thought I’d share a few tips. I have loads but I’ll keep it brief. If anyone has any questions I’d be happy to answer them!
Some obvious that you might have heard of, some perhaps not. Here are some little ways how you can make a difference to the planet without straining yourself.
Know your limits. Eating out for food is brilliant, however you will notice (especially my friends in the states) that a lot of food is wasted. I’m not telling you to eat everything on your plate, nobody should stuff themselves with food because that’s just silly. If we all lived like the United States then we would need 6 of our planets in order to support this. If you are used to eating out in a cafe and you know they give you too much food, then ask for less. You know you won’t eat that salad? Ask for your meal without. If people demand for less food on their plate, there will be less of a demand for all this food, as not to overuse our resources.
Eat less meat. I’m particularly referring to cow. Cattle farms contribute massively to Methane emissions (a form of carbon and a greenhouse gas), via their…excrement. There is a misconception that Humans are Carnivores, we are in fact Omnivores, we are able to live off both meat and veggies alone. You can tell this by our teeth, we do not have big pointy teeth like cats or dogs because we do not need them to rip meat from its carcass, therefore we do not need meat. Because we of our diet we in fact find it hard digest red meat (like beef) because the acid in our stomach isn’t like that of a carnivore’s. Therefore these huge cattle farms are unnecessary, this input of methane into our atmosphere is unnecessary. If you are able to cut out meat easily, why not try alternate weeks of eating meat and not eating meat? Try a veggie burger instead of beef? Or go veggie altogether? I’m not a vegetarian because I love chicken and duck too much. But just one meat free day a week can save liters of water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Drink more water, waste less water. Health gurus go on about how much water is good for you, take their advice! You won’t regret it! The best way I found to incorporate more water into my diet is to buy a big water bottle and keep it with me all day, it’s amazing how much water you drink when it’s already with you. I’m not going to go into details about how you shouldn’t waste water because it’s pretty self explanatory. Another water-tip I can give you is to not pour milk down the sink! It takes the water treatment works a long time to remove this, as a result they need to use more chemicals, energy and more of your money!
Learn to love your garden. There is something very rewarding about growing your own food, when you do this you learn what food is in season, which is handy when shopping because in season food is usually cheaper. Countryfile in the UK promoted a lottery funded campaign which involved encouraging people to plant native wildflowers in your garden. Not only because they look really pretty and are declining. But they are helping our bee populations, more bees means more flowers and honey, and who doesn’t like flowers and honey?
Me casa es tu casa. Make your garden a home for various wildlife, a pond is great for fish, invertebrates and frogs. If you have a tree in your garden you can hang bird feeders or install bird boxes (unless you live in a neighborhood with lots of cats). There are many things you can do to allow a species to use a space that you don’t, check this out.