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Microplastic, a substance that can be traced back to the washing of synthetic garments is beginning to accumulate in the marine environments of the world. In recent studies these microplastic traces are believed to be leaching in to the food chain, creating a new cause for alarm. In this article we will take a look at these newest findings and what they mean to you.
What Are Microplastics?
‘Microplastics’ is a term being used to refer to the tiny fibers that are released in to the water supply each time some synthetic clothing garments are washed. Research suggests that washing a single garment made from synthetic material could release as many as 1900 tiny microfibers with each wash. These microplastics might be tiny, measuring around 1mm per fiber, but they are still finding their way in to the water system and making an impact.
Why Are Microplastics Significant?
Many people ask why microplastics are significant if they are so tiny to begin with. The fact of the matter is that although these fibers are incredibly tiny, they still pose a risk as they find their way in to the food chain when eaten by marine animals.
The Study of Microplastics on Our Shores
Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist based out of the University of California in Santa Barbara began the study of microplastics when he and his colleagues began to take a detailed look at the different types of plastic found in the environment. The analysis of these plastics revealed that some eighty percent of them were comprised of smaller pieces of plastic and that prompted Dr. Browne and his associates to trace where they came from. As Dr. Browne began his study it wasn’t long before he found that traces of the small plastics were beginning to find their way in to the food chain as they were eaten by marine animals.
The “Processing” of Microplastics
Dr. Browne found that as animals consumed the microplastics from their marine environment the small pieces of plastic were moved from their stomachs in to their circulatory system. As the microplastics found their way in to the circulatory system they then began to accumulate in the animal’s cells.
How widespread is the Microplastics Problem?
Dr. Browne was interested to see just how widespread the problem of microplastic consumption was along the shorelines of the world and so his team of researchers began collecting samples. Samples from eighteen different beaches around the globe were taken with beach locations including the United Kingdom, Singapore and India. To Dr. Browne’s amazement there was not one single beach sample collected that did not show evidence of microplastic contamination. Dr Browne adds that the majority of the fibers that were found were analyzed and found to contain polymers common to synthetic materials like nylon, acrylic and polyester. Dr Browne’s study also found that concentrations of these synthetic fibers seemed to be highest in areas that were the closest to large cities and this sparked the doctor’s research in to where these microplastics were originating from.
Studying the Origin of Microplastics
Dr Browne wanted to look further in to the origin of the microplastics that seemed at their highest content in waters close to city centers and so he set up an experiment. Dr Browne called a local authority in New South Wales in Australia to ask about the proportion of plastics in their water. The Australian authority confirmed that the levels of plastics in their water were consistent with Browne’s findings. With this information Browne began to test the waters that came out of washing machines to see just what they contained.
What Did Browne Find Through His Studies?
Browne ran single synthetic fiber garments through a single washing cycle in a washing machine and found that some garments in particular released incredible amounts of synthetic fibers in to the water runoff. One of the most amazing findings was that some polyester based clothing items released as many as 1,900 individual fibers. What makes this finding so incredible is that rarely is a single garment washed alone and rarely is a single garment washed once during its lifetime. This indicated that through the regular washing cycle habits of most households, the buildup of synthetic fibers and consequently microplastic residue can reach mind blowing levels.
Why Aren’t these Microplastics Filtered From the Water?
As microfibers are released in the runoff water from washing machines many people question why they are not removed prior to water being released in to the general water system. When water passes through a treatment facility despite the fact that it is filtered and even cleaned by tiny bacteria that consume any remnants of sewage before the water passes through a settling tank. After water runs out of the settling tank through an outfall pipe it is then transferred in to the ocean or local rivers. The problem with the microplastics that are released in to the water system is that the tiny fibers are so small at less than one single millimeter, that they are able to pollute the natural waters that they eventually run off in to.
Why Should We Be Concerned About Microplastics?
There are numerous reasons why we should concern ourselves with the presence of microplastics in our marine waters. One of the biggest concerns as pointed out in this study is the transference of microplastics from the world’s marine ecosystems in to the animals within them. As these animals consume microplastics that build up within their bodies they are not only at risk for various health conditions but they also put humans at risk that depend upon marine life as a major food source. Whether your main concern is the dying out of a particular species due to poisoning by microplastics, or whether it is the potential for you to ingest these small synthetic fibers, the fact remains that something needs to be done and the change starts with you.
Retrofitting Waste Water Treatment Plants
The concept of retrofitting waste water treatment plants has been raised by a number of marine conservation organizations. This process would involve fitting filtration systems in to waste water treatment plants that were capable of filtering out even the microplastic waste that is currently being passed in to water supplies. This process may seem like a simple solution to the pollution problem and it certainly is a feasible one; however, there are a number of concerns that make this option a little less viable.
Fitting all waste water treatment plants with complex filtration systems would be extremely expensive. The added cost in an industry where additional funding is certainly not easy to come by is the single most prohibitive factor in employing this type of solution.
Certainly for developed countries the idea of retrofitting water treatment plants with these filtration systems is quite feasible, but what about less developed countries? In countries where clean water is as scarce as gold this type of project is laughable. So while it is possible to cut down on pollution in the water ways, it is extremely unlikely that a global filtration project would ever come to fruition.
In addition to the cost of retrofitting water treatment plants with water filtration systems, there is also the cost of regulatory maintenance. Whether we are talking about the additional manpower required to keep these filtration systems clear from blockage, or the cost of routine maintenance, these water filtration systems are bound to add additional cost to the process. Even if this cost were to be funded by charitable organizations and donations it would be an ongoing cost that would pose little in terms of “immediate reward” to businesses.
Other Water Contamination Sources
If, in an ideal world, it were possible to retrofit each water filtration plant in the world with the technology to filter out microplastic waste, this would still not completely resolve the problem. While a large portion of the worlds water supply is filtered through waste water treatment plants, there are still many other water sources that are not. There are run offs from factories, local water ways that experience garbage dumping and various other water contamination sources that would not benefit from this type of filtration project. These water sources are left almost completely unchecked and result in a significant amount of pollution. So even were every waste water plant in the world fitted with this type of filtration what good would it do if these contaminated waterways continued to dump pollutants in to our water sources? What difference would such an expensive treatment project make if the clean water that resulted was only polluted again in the long run by these unchecked water sources?
The Importance of Further Research in to Microplastics Contamination Prevention
In the case of microplastics contamination prevention it almost always seems like we are taking two steps forwards and one step backwards. The presence of research organizations like the NOAA Marine Debris Program however, is a ray of hope in the fight for progression towards clean water. With continued research studies organizations like NOAA are focusing on breaking down microplastics to their most basic elements in an effort to develop more practical clean up solutions. While water filtration systems may be part of the answer, organizations like NOAA understand that there is much more to finding this solution than a single (and only partially effective) solution.
The NOAA Marine Debris Program
The NOAA Marine Debris Program is important to the issue of microplastics leaching in to the food chain because it is leading efforts in to microplastic research. The NOAA Marine Debris Program or the MDP was developed to not only to research the effects of microplastics in the marine system, but they are also dedicated to preventing and reducing the impact of all marine debris. The NOAA defines marine debris as any man-made object that has been discarded, disposed of or abandoned so that it is able to enter in to the coastal or marine waters.
NOAA Researches Microplastics
The NOAA Debris Program in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Joel Baker at the University of Washington Tacoma has been researching microplastics in water sources. Field methods for collecting sand, sediment and surface water microplastic samples have been developed by NOAA and Dr. Baker and they are currently being tested at the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. The research of these microplastics is being funded by the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. So far the project has been able to set up a simple, unbiased and cost efficient method of tracking polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinylchloride in each of the environmental samples retrieved. NOAA hopes that in time they will be able to utilize the protocols that they have developed to compare the quantities of microplastics in waterways around the globe. By analyzing and comparing this data NOAA will be able to determine the distribution pattern of microplastics in the water, the impacts of these microplastic levels and the fate of the global waterways.
How Can NOAA Debris Program Research be applied?
Certainly it is helpful for researchers to understand where levels of microplastics in water sources are highest but what type of application does this research have? Knowing how much debris is in local water supplies does not necessarily mean that anything will change those levels of pollution. NOAA is focusing their efforts on being able to apply their research in to the development of microplastic quantification methods. By developing a microplastic quantification method NOAA aims to refine the current quantification method to obtain more information about individual particles of microplastics.
Further Research in to Microplastics
NOAA is not the only organization focused on microplastic research, one of the biggest names in microplastics research currently is KIMO. KIMO was developed to create a political voice to share the best practice and develop solutions to various marine problems that currently affect coastal communities. As a pioneering environmental force, KIMO has put a lot of effort in to microplastics research. Currently KIMO is working with Plymouth University in an effort to recover the full impact of microplastics on ecology.