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Microplastics, a small but VERY BIG deal, in us and in the oceans

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It is no secret that plastics big and small, are a global issue and the products made out of them, we must move away from relying on so greatly or we must change the way they are made and the overall properties of plastics. It seems to me like the first option is better, to learn how to use less of them, if any at all.

Unlike most natural products, synthetics are a genuine concern due to their inability to break down (effectively) in nature. The man made products that end up filling our trash bins and landfills have nowhere to go any time soon and some of the most threatening products in those landfills, on our streets and in our homes are plastic. Though it is true that by now, we have found many uses not only for trash but also recycled plastics in the forms of bathing suits, water bottles, highways, rugs, jewelry and so much more. Regardless, it still presents us worldwide, with an issue that can no longer be brushed under the rug: plastic pollution. This pollution I mention, is a beast that we have watched grow for the last 4-5 decades but now, it is the offspring of plastic pollution that has only recently come to the surface of mainstream news, microplastics. These are defined by most as being any fragmented piece of plastic that is between 1-5mm in size; it is these little devils that find their way into everything and every one even the air we breath and the oceans.

No matter how far we come away from our dependency on plastic, the over-production and the pollution it has caused is far too great to forget. We will never be able to put our plastic past behind us; we humans have left our footprint and it is made of plastic.

These plastic products and the microplastics fragmented from them will “be used as stratigraphic markers in the archaeological field by considering them as recent and precise indicators of earth deposits. Some authors identify the period from 1945 onwards as a moment of significant increase in plastics deposition” “such synthetic fossil based materials [plastics] are so abundant and widespread on earth that we can consider them “techno fossils” as they will constitute a perennial proof of the historical epoch [known] as the Plasticine” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

Like dinosaur bones and the fossils humans have discovered over the last century there will be traces of humans which will remain in the form of our own bones and also, our trash and everything in it that simply could not break down.

The daily dependency and overall usage of plastics goes beyond what is obvious once you start to give careful thought to the products you use, the clothes you wear and the foods you eat and the various ingredients they are all made from. From cosmetic products to cleaning supplies we are reliant on ingredients such as plastics, polymers, various synthetics and the additives in them, all of which are harmful and abundant. The world has been well aware of the threat chemicals in plastics pose such as BPA (bisphenol A) to such a point that in 2010, the FDA had to ask producers of baby items to refrain from using the chemical (WebMD; “What is BPA and is it safe?) in their products. According to NOAA “In 2015 Obama took initiative to sign the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015” that helped jumpstart the ban of microbeads in cosmetic and beauty products such as face wash and toothpastes. The evidence is as clear as clean water, the process of creating plastic, the chemicals, the additives and the enforcements we mix into them along with the inability for them to later break down naturally are all bad news. Each ingredient has a potential to leak into our digestive system and into our blood streams the same way that those ingredients find their way into the soil and the water they sit in, after we are done using them. It is the build up of these toxins many of which are carcinogenic, that is effecting human development and health as much as it is the health and populations of all the species on earth.

Additives are chemicals intentionally, add[ed] during plastic production to give plastic qualities… to improve both the resistance to degradation by ozone, temperature, light radiation, mold, bacteria, humidity… they include inert or reinforcing fillers, plasticizers, antioxidant, uv stabilizers, lubricants, dyes and flame retardants… woods, rock-flour, clay, kaolin, graphite, glass fibers, cotton flakes, jute or linen, cellulose pulp, etc. .” … and the coloring used,“they mainly consist of organic or inorganic cadmium, barium or lead salts… titanium oxide, lead, mercury” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

YUCK!!

Not only are we covered in plastics but many of us are drinking from plastic, eating from plastic and storing our meals inside of plastic containers and bags which are not guaranteed to get recycled by all users. Think about the thousands of plastic bags leaving stores on an hourly basis and all of the produce being packaged, shipped, purchased and refrigerated inside of plastic wraps and packages. What happens to those wrappers and packages immediately after they are removed from the product?… It is quite insane how few of those items are recycled correctly or re-used, if at all. Although many people strongly rely on plastics for medical purposes: prescriptions, life saving contents for diabetics within their medical syringes and many more practical, necessary ways our battle is against single use, non recyclable plastic and how it inevitably ends up clogging our streets, water ways, landfills and the oceans.

According to BBC correspondent Jonathan Amos “something in the order of 4-12 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, mostly through river(ways)”. Our problem now, is not just the alarming number of plastic entering the ocean annually but that the “visible trash represents just 1% of the marine plastic budget. The exact whereabouts of the other 99% is unknown. Some of it has almost certainly been consumed by sea creatures”.

AND ON THAT NOTE, FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

It was mentioned in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology “it is possible that humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastics a year”.

Not only are sea creatures the ones consuming this literal garbage but we are too, by playing our part as an apex predator in a food chain that is literally filled with plastic at this point from the bottom feeders up. I found some interesting statistics amongst a site for Surfers Against Sewage and also while reading about some of the research done at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that I will list as bullet points for you to mull over.

  • in an examination of small creatures called Larvaceans (creatures that filter organisms from the water using mucus around them to collect their food) “we found small plastic pieces in every single larvacean that we examine from different depths across the water column” (Marine bio. Anela Choy- Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego)

  • Also, every red crab they studied in the above searches, proved to have microplastic contents in their digestive tracts

  • Every beach in the world has traces of microplastics, inhabited or not

  • 1 in 3 fish caught show up with microplastics, that is 1 in every 3 fish caught for HUMAN CONSUMPTION!

  • plastic has shown up in arctic ice

  • Plastic makes up 60-90% of marine debris

(Here is where it hits hard for me as someone living on Maui, so close to the ocean and all of its creatures:)

*100% of sea turtles examined, contain microplastics

*59% of whales examined do as well

*36% of the seals in our water have microplastics

*40% of sea birds show traces of microplastics

The health and their futures of all species are at risk because of us, our inventions, our ingenuity, our carelessness and our lack of a system that holds the makers accountable for the products they have created on massive scales. Could our drive for progress and innovation help turn back the damage we have done? Or have we doomed ourselves to extinction along with many innocent species that got caught up in the food chain we tainted with our microplastics and chemicals? Luckily there is a lot of wok being done by scientists, marine biologists, chemists and environmentalists alike to reverse any damage we may be able to and to look for solutions for the future. One inspiring scientist from Ireland, Fionn Ferreira, made it in the news a few years back winning the Annual Google Science Fair. He was inspired by the magnetic jet fuel created by NASA in the 1960s and driven by a desire to clean the waste water and ocean water of plastics. In his inspiration and drive for a solution, he created his own magnetic liquid made from an oil base that can remove plastics from water, “plastic and oil are non-polar, meaning they are likely to stick to one another in nature”. From magnets to tightly meshed membranes and screens to the discovery of organisms that may learn how to digest polymers and plastics for us- there is hope.

The greatest service us non-inventors can do for our planet, the oceans and the future of so many species is to educate ourselves further on the products we choose to use regularly and to ask ourselves what is to become of that product and its packaging once it has been opened and used!? We have to hold ourselves and our families as accountable to the products we buy as the companies that make them, ensuring that the ingredients are something we feel good about and the bi-products are reusable or recyclable.

A few simple ways to start making the positive impact needed is to consider buying yourself and your loved ones reusable water bottles, using your own reusable shopping bags, organizing and participating in clean ups wether you live by water or not (trash any where could end up as trash in the ocean!), looking further into the ingredients that are in the products you buy and educating others to do the same and supporting companies that are doing the same, like E-Foil Hawaii. As is true with many global issues big and small, the change starts on land and locally.

**I found a great resource amongst many that serves as a platform for consumers who wish to check the companies and products they already love directly, to ensure wether or not those products are made with (or without) any harmful ingredients such as polymers. The platform has both a website and an app that anyone can download and it offers various alternatives to those products you may love but find out, do not love the environment back in the right way. That site and app are called: BeatTheMicrobead.org **

According to Dr. Sherri Mason a chemist interviewed for National Geographic “The main plastic being used in mircrobead containing products is polyethylene- so, when buying [hygiene and beauty] a product that’s the main on to look for. Industry also likes to obscure the names of plastics in products, so “acrylate copolymer” and “polypropylene” are two other words to look for and avoid”

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Resources:

– “What’s up with microbeads”? Erica Cirino, 2016, NAT GEO

– “A detailed review study on potential effects of Microplastics and additives of concern on human health” int j. Environmental Res. Public Health 2020 Feb. 2017 / ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

– NPRs “The Salt” – Food For Thought, “Microplastics have invaded the deep ocean and the food chain” June 6 2019 by

Christopher Joyce

– SAS.org.UK

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