Is it just a matter of time before our oceans are free from plastic?

IMG_4268.JPGAnswers 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.

 

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What you need to know about Microplastic Pollution.

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.

 

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Goodhead, 2017

 

Toodles xo

*lol not revealing my concoction of death

Preventing Plastic Pollution.

We have a tendency to ignore what we can’t see, even if it surrounds us and influences our lives on a daily basis.  It seems that we get carbon dioxide/monoxide/methane pollution awareness flying at us from left, right and centre. The same with those images with penguins with plastic six pack rings around their necks; “aww no little penguin I’ll save you by not throwing my rubbish into the sea“…  Well yes that is a good plan, especially if you live next to an open body of water, however people who this doesn’t apply to (like me) tend to ignore marine pollution and think it doesn’t apply to them.

There is more than one way of plastics entering the marine environment. Plastic bags are a good example, they are light and catch the wind easily; if a breeze catches your plastic bag and it doesn’t end up caught in a tree, it is highly likely for it to end up in a water system. Rubbish gets transported around a lot, moved from place to place providing it with a lot of opportunities to flee from the peril of the rubbish truck.

But what could I possibly do to prevent this?” I hear you all desperately shouting at your screen. I personally use my old plastic bags to put rubbish in, or alternatively to add more weight to the polyethylene death trap you can tie it into a knot. Ta Dah! Your 5 years as a scout/girl guide has finally paid off and you can save the world!

One thing we are yet to learn prevent is what happens when the plastic has entered the marine environment and begins to degrade. You may have heard about microplastics before, you may not have, but they are so so frustrating. Plastics can degrade for many many years, therefore it’s a problem for many many years, microplastics are not visible to the naked human eye, and are therefore not really mentioned much. These can then be ingested by marine wildlife and emit some nasty chemicals, which aren’t beneficial to any species.

To prevent this there isn’t really much you can do, perhaps unless you’re a boffin with stacks of dosh. But there is one thing you can do! As mentioned microplastics are a result of degrading plastic, but they can also enter the water system immediately from the use of exfoliators. Some brands such as Neutrogena, Clean and Clear and Clearasil pride themselves with cosmetic products which contain “microbeads”, this is just another word for microplastic. With others you have to look at the back of the packaging, if you see a “poly….” word don’t use it, plastic shouldn’t be in an exfoliant. Instead use something natural like sugar or salt!

Any thoughts? Please let me know below.

Bethan.