While they might not sound alarming at first, microplastics are one of the biggest current threats to the environment. They are everywhere – in our oceans, other bodies of water, food, beauty products, and even the air throughout the most remote regions of the western hemisphere. It has been estimated that humans have manufactured around 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, which is an alarming figure because it is just 9% of the total amount of plastic ever recycled.
When humans dump plastic into bodies of water, it gets consumed by marine animals. The plastics, once consumed, can stunt development and cause reproductive issues. They have also been found in the human placenta, stool samples, and lung tissues, entering these parts of the body through the food web. When consumers eat seafood containing microplastics, they expose themselves to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. What’s more, these dangersous micro toxins have also been found in soil and other plant-based products.
The most common, effective method used is to shun the use of single-use plastics. The first state in the United States of America to formulate a strategy to fight the spread of microplastics, California has stepped up to bring about change. Their Ocean Protection Body has passed a plan to spend 3 million USD between 2022 and 2030 in an effort to reduce microplastics levels in the environment.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that measure less than five millimeters. They come from various kinds of larger plastic debris – among the most common form of debris found in large bodies of water – that degrade into tinier pieces. Microbeads are another type of microplastic. These tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic get added to health and beauty products as exfoliants. Due to their size, microplastics pass through water filtration systems and are ultimately dumped in oceans, lakes, and so on.
Microplastics are not a new issue, according to the pollution index. Per a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, microbeads started to appear about fifty years ago with the increase in personal care products. In the time since, they’ve increasingly replaced natural ingredients used in these products and caused health hazards among consumers as well as the environment.
How do they damage the ocean?
Due to their tiny size, microplastics often get mistaken as food by a variety of marine creatures like phytoplankton, corals, sea urchins, and lobsters. Once eaten, they can cause entanglement and indigestion, both of which are severely harmful to aquatic life. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to microplastic pollution. They survive via a symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae in their tissue cavities and feed on plankton for essential nutrients that help them grow and reproduce. As microplastics enter the ocean ecosystem, corals ingest their plastic fragments, which disrupts their energy retention and tissue development, leading to a reduction in their energy reserves. Microbial biofilms from microplastics then transmit pathogens that can harm the reefs’ gut cavity.
Microplastics also have an adverse effect on plankton and the oceanic animals that eat them. Setting the base for the aquatic food web, plankton are the most critical component of marine habitats. Microplastics penetrate through their walls, hinder their chlorophyll absorption, and then stay in their tissues. Fish and other marine animals then eat either the microplastics-contaminated plankton or the microplastics themselves, mistaking the plastic for small prey. Fish that feed on microplastics or contaminated plankton typically lay eggs that are slower to hatch, with larvae that tend to be smaller and slower to respond.
How can we track them with environmental monitoring?
According to Dickson data, using the right environmental monitoring tools can transform the discourse on microplastics data. Environmental monitoring of the air, ocean, and land that gauges and studies the amount of presence of microplastics will help monitor the pollutant and inform decisions that lead to improved results in the future. California has gotten the ball rolling by deciding to monitor the level of harmful microplastic matter in the air.
How does California want to remove them?
In the short term, California has set a two-step strategy in motion. The first step is to reduce and gradually eliminate single-use plastics, cigarette filters, car tires, and synthetic fibers. In 2019, these types of debris accounted for more than half of microplastic pollution in California’s coastal waters. The next step is to monitor the microplastic levels in these waters and come up with viable solutions. The state’s plan also includes improving water storage systems to better capture pollutants before they enter the ocean.
The multi-year roadmap for this plan ultimately consists of 22 steps to reduce and manage microplastics. Pollution prevention tools, the promotion of sustainable living materials, and the prohibition of polystyrene food-ware and packaging are expected to be completely implemented by 2030. The reality is that human pollutive activity has profoundly disrupted ocean life. By aiming to eradicate microplastics, the first and most significant point of action, California is leading the charge to restore the beauty and health of our world’s oceans and aquatic life.