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The Dangerous Fragments in the Ocean: Microplastic

The amount of plastic in the oceans has become a recent environmental concern. That plastic floating in the ocean isn’t the only problem––even more problematic are the tiny pieces that come from them––microplastic. In the ocean alone, 51 trillion particles of microplastic exist. They are so small, with a diameter of 5 millimeters or less, that it is nearly impossible to detect them with the naked eye. Examples of these particles include broken up, brittle contact lenses and fragments of plastic sheets farmers use in soil. A domino effect also exists with microplastic because they can affect small fish and other ocean life, and eventually, humans too.

Plastic is not like organic material that eventually decomposes in oceans. Instead, this material breaks into innumerable fragments that pollute waters and consequently are ingested by marine life. The small size causes a great amount of fish and plankton to accidentally consume the plastic, causing them to have trouble digesting and eventually results in death. Sometimes, the fish lives with the fragments of trash still remaining in it and humans might consume them. This is hazardous for humans because plastic attracts chemicals such as PCBs, and we can potentially consume these toxic chemicals. PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, can cause serious health effects in humans such as cancer, and it is difficult to remove because it builds up inside the body by entering fat tissues.

Even though there has been some permanent damage because of this hazardous material, an organization called Ocean Cleanup has invested 35 million dollars in this system, and they are hopeful that it will lead to beneficial results. The system is composed of a 2,000 foot long tube and a skirt that can collect the plastic. After the collection process, a boat will collect the debris and transport it to land to be recycled. In the next couple of week, engineers will test the technology in the Pacific to see how it will manage the waves and tides. Even though it has passed its first trial in the the North Sea, engineers and scientists wonder if it can sustain the roughness of the Pacific. There is additional doubt about this system because not all plastic is buoyant, and marine life can be captured in the skirt and tube. However, these two concerns have not been proven due to the fact that it has not been put to use for a long period of time.

Image above pictures the Baltimore Water Wheel 

Another solution has been the Baltimore Water Wheel. It also uses booms (floating beams that keep all plastic fragments from going farther into the water) to insert the debris into the wheel and has been proven to work since the water quality has significantly improved in Jones Falls where it was placed. However, it is a costly investment since it costs over $700,000 to build and another $100,000 to run every year. It might be a long-term expensive investment, but it can help keep the water clean.

Society uses plastic in everyday life, and it will be difficult to change the habit it has become accustomed to. With over 51 trillion particles of microplastic coming from various sources, it will be difficult to remove the scars that plastic has on the ocean and soil. However, to help ecosystems and the environment recover small steps, changes can be made to reduce the amount of plastic used. For example, buying environmentally friendly contact lenses and using less plastic bags could help by a minuscule amount. Still, it will probably not be enough to reverse the damage caused by the trillions of microplastics floating in the ocean. Regardless, every little bit counts.

 

Resources

<https://www.npr.org/2018/09/11/646724291/a-massive-floating-boom-is-supposed-to-clean-up-the-pacific-can-it-work>

<https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/Baltimores-trash-eating-waterwheel/96/i16>

<https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-has-a-hidden-plastic-problem-mdash-scientists-are-hunting-it-down/>

<https://plasticchange.org/our-documentation/microplastic/>

<https://www.healthyoptions.com.ph/newsdigest/a-plastic-planet-what-we-are-leaving-behind/microplastics-be-very-afraid>

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