Microplastics: Tiny Particles, Big Problems

– by Anne Bengtsson

All of our oceans contain plastic garbage. The question is: How much, and where is it coming from?

A large survey from the Swedish Environmental Institution has tracked the different pathways and sources for microplastics in our oceans and found that microplastics come mainly from tire wear from roads, as well as artificial turf pitches. Microplastics are defined as plastic particles smaller than 5 mm.

The survey was done in order to detect the origin of the materials and thereby decrease the output. The output from traffic was estimated at 13 500 tonnes per year and the output from the artificial pitches was 2 300 – 2 200 tonnes per year.  It is unclear, however, as to how much of this material reaches the ocean and other waters and how much that stays near the source of outlet. This is mainly because it is very difficult to trace the different pathways. The output of microplastic material from Swedish households is estimated at 4 -30 tonnes yearly after being treated in a sewage plant. The total amount of microplasics in the Baltic Sea is unknown.

Plastics on the beach related to Tell a story (2)

Plastics found on beach in Abbekås, Sweden. Looking at what is floating ashore, one does wonder how much the ocean contains and what the effects are. / photo credit: Anne Bengtsson

Microplastics in the oceans can have different origins than larger plastic compounds being worn down, from sewage systems to atmospheric pollution. It is of great importance to minimize the output as soon as possible mostly because the environmental effects as well as the fact that the plastics remains for a very long time and takes very long time to decompose. Still, researchers point out that there is still a lack of knowledge when it comes to the different origins of outlets.

The quantity of microplasics in the oceans is a huge threat to animals and to people’s health. When marine animals such as zooplankton and mussels filter water in order to obtain nourishment they also take in the plastic material. Environmental toxins bind harder to plastics then to natural particles, meaning that marine animals ingest high contents of the toxins. In turn, humans eating the marine animals will also ingest the high amount of toxins. Microplastics also cause damage to the liver when being obtained by fishes. Still most of the knowledge regarding this problem is studied in a laboratory and more research needs to be done in the oceans.

References
Ny Teknik
Här är de största svenska mikroplastbovarna, 8th of March 2016
http://www.nyteknik.se/nyheter/energi_miljo/miljo/article3965715.ece

Deras uppdrag: stoppa utsläpp av mikroplast, 10th of August 2015
http://www.nyteknik.se/nyheter/energi_miljo/miljo/article3921950.ece

Forskning och framsteg
Det dolda hotet i havet, 14th of October 2014
http://fof.se/tidning/2014/9/artikel/mikroplast-det-dolda-hotet-i-havet

 

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