Plastic waste is being discharged into the oceans in a much faster pace than it degrades. It has been suggested that plastic might never degrade completely and it is believed that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
Microplastics is the term used for pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm. Microplastics can be very harmful for all living organisms on the planet including the homo sapiens. Since plastic is not biodegradable it takes very long time before it “disappears” from the oceans. Some microplastics originate from bigger pieces of plastic which deteriorate to smaller pieces, another source of microplastics is beauty product such as face scrub, moisturizers etc. They contain microbeads (manufactured small solid microplastics) and when we take a shower or wash ourselves, we wash them straight down the drain and some of the microbeads end up in the oceans. According to a survey conducted in 2012 a total of 4360 tons microbeads were used in beauty products only in the European Union. Fortunately, many countries has started to ban the use of microbeads in beauty products. Some of these countries are; UK, Ireland, Canada and some states in the US.
Another source of microplastics is plastic bags, which is used widely all over the world. Some countries including France have banned the use of nondegradable plastic bags that are thinner than 50 microns. The thicker can still be sold since they can be used multiple times. There is also an update in European Union directive 94/62/EG aiming to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic bags. The update is not as strict as the French ban but its aim is that each person should not consume more than 40 lightweight plastic bags per year by 2025. In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Portugal each person uses more than 500 plastic bags per year.
The big problem with microplastics is that oceanic organisms, birds, fish and marine mammals either gets it in their system by mistake or eats the microplastic particles and they potentially end up in humans. Microplastic often contains chemicals that are added during the manufacturing process, plastic is also very good at absorbing chemicals from the surrounding seawater. Studies has shown that fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds that ingest microplastic may starve and/or lose their reproductive abilities. The effects of this can cause drastic consequences in the future, for example huge reduction in fish and shellfish stocks and the extinction of several species. This will of course lead to less food being available for marine mammals and human beings. Since a lot of the food we consume comes from the oceans, you can only start to imagine what consequences a “breakdown” of the marine ecosystem would have for us.