A volunteer of the non-governmental organization Canarias Libre de Plasticos carries out a collection of microplastics and mesoplastic debris to clean the Almaciga Beach, on the north coast of the Canary Island of Tenerife, on July 14th, 2018. (Photo: Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the most ubiquitous developing environmental challenges confronted today is microplastic contamination. Plastic pieces, particles, and fibers are becoming more polluted in the world's seas, freshwaters, soils, and air, generating worries about the environmental and human health consequences. Around 14 million tonnes of microplastics have been estimated to have accumulated on the ocean floor. (Barett et al., 2020)
Causes and influences
So what are microplastics and where do they come from? Microplastics are plastics smaller than five millimeters in length. They often appear in the environment as pieces, fibers, pellets, or beads of various sizes and physicochemical compositions. Microplastics are regularly consumed by aquatic organisms, ranging from plankton to huge marine mammals. Humans are also exposed to microplastics through the eating of contaminated seafood and, other foods and beverages, as well as through inhaling microplastics in the air.
Microplastic pollution has caught scientific and public awareness not until recently, but the sources that have been constantly contributing to the pollution have existed continually. Some of those sources are land flow, coastal tourism, fishing, and ship transportation. The common aspect between all 4 of these sources is the excessive use of plastic in many various forms such as - plastic bags, water bottles, foam, and fibers.
Effects of microplastic pollution
Microplastics can harm fish and other aquatic life by lowering food intake, slowing growth, causing oxidative damage, and inducing aberrant behaviour, among other things. Nano-scale microplastics will also permeate the biological barrier and accumulate in tissues, causing the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), disrupting lipid metabolism, and perhaps harming life at the molecular level.
Because of their small particle sizes, microplastics are widely distributed in the marine environment; they are easily consumed by marine life and cause a variety of toxic effects, such as growth and development inhibition, impact on feeding and behavioral ability, reproductive toxicity, immunity toxicity, genetic damage, and so on.
Furthermore, the damaging effect of microplastics on corals is caused by the retention of plastic pieces in mesenterial tissue, which reduces feeding capability and lowers energy stores. (Lusher et al., 2015)
Initiatives taken to control problem
The OECD nations play a critical role in reducing microplastic contamination. While most plastic waste mishandling happens in emerging nations, OECD countries have a substantial role in microplastics emissions. North America, Western Europe, and Japan are responsible for over a third of all microplastics released into the environment.
At this time, marine microplastic pollution is becoming increasingly serious, and it has become a worldwide pollution problem, yet there are no viable remediation solutions available. Concerns about the environmental and human health consequences of exposure to these contaminants are growing. Because the buildup of plastics and microplastics in the environment poses long-term and irreversible threats to ecosystems and human health, mitigating actions must be done.
However, certain initiatives have been taken to reduce the problem such as on December 28th, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products (NOAA, 2021). Moreover, we, as layman people, can contribute to reducing this pollution by following the 3 R’s - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The root problem of microplastic pollution arises from the pollution of plastics, so in order for us to even start thinking and acting upon microplastic pollution; the foundation needs to begin from reducing, reusing and recycling plastics. Plastic Pollution Coalitions, Plastics for Change, Plastic Oceans, Surfers Against Sewage, Greenpeace, By the Ocean We Unite, One More Generation, One Green Planet, Surf Rider Foundation, Earth Guardians, and other socially active platforms are all working on the issue of microplastic pollution and making significant contributions.
For its negative impacts on marine biota, the problem of plastic pollution in the marine ecosystem has become a source of worry in recent years. Microplastics have a significant bioaccumulation potential due to their small size and this problem has been ignored for a really long time. New research approaches for conservation management and support for various educational programmes are needed to safeguard ecosystems from these toxic polymers.To minimise future danger, the best option is to cease making it and look for plastic-based alternatives.