Microplastic Traces Leaching Into Food Chain

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Water pipe gushingMicroplastic, 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.

Added Cost

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.

Feasibility

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.

Regulatory Cost

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

KIMO

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.

Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.

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Alex
Why not require the filtering at the home level rather than the city level? Could be easier to require a filter for the waste water from washing machines directly. I mean dryers have lint catches, why not a catch for the washing machine too?
Anonymous
This article was both informative and alarming in regards to microplastics. I was completely unaware that this was an issue, and that I may be inadvertently contributing to it by washing my synthetic fiber clothing. It sounds to me, at least initially, that the problem is a lot like the mercury problem that we have been dealing with for a few years now, as far as potential contamination of the human population.

The microplastics within the circulatory systems of marine animals was also quite alarming to read about. Marine animals seem to have a lot of trouble with human contamination of their habitats, and this definitely is just a new addition to a multi-faceted problem.

I appreciated the interviews with Dr. Browne. It was great to hear the scientific perspective. It was also interesting that Dr. Browne and his crew of researchers examined beaches from all over the world and found that the problem of microplastics was wide-spread and universal.

I was certainly surprised by the fact that polyester releases so many synthetic fibers into the water. This article definitely brought to light just how much microplastics run-off is created by owning polyester clothing. I never was one to particularly like artificial fibers, but now I realize that they are actually bad for the environment in addition to being uncomfortable, that seals the deal for me: No buying artificial fibers that create microplastic build-up in marine zones!

I had a very alarming thought come up during the article and this was not answered specifically: Are microplastics getting into the drinking water supply? The part of the article that discussed how the microplastics are bypassing traditional filtration systems and even bacterial breakdown got me completely worried that this may be happening within potable water filtration systems as well.

Besides not buying polyester, I was curious as well what other fabrics pollute heavily in the way of microplastics. I assume that synthetic fibers in general are probably not a good way to go, and this is definitely good advice even if there were no such thing as microplastic pollution. Still, I would like to know in general what the worst polluters are. I also was curious, besides not purchasing synthetic fiber clothing and perhaps getting rid of the synthetic clothing you have, what else could be done. Is there some way that Dr. Browne or another researcher has found that can help clean marine waterways? Are there any new technologies coming out that will help people keep fibers from leeching out through the washing machines?

This is definitely a hot topic that I am hoping Dr. Browne and others will learn more about, and soon. It is shocking and appalling to me that this problem has gone on for so many years now and is now becoming a huge issue. More people definitely need to be made aware of this before the problem continues to grow into a full-blown crisis. Thank you to the author for bringing this issue to light.

Anonymous
This article was also very eye opening to me. Before reading this I was just simply not aware of micro plastics and that they posed such a threat to our food chain. According to the author, these micro plastics are actually very small particles that are released from synthetic clothing as they are washed in conventional washing machines.

The problem is that as the washing machine finishes its cycle the water is emptied out into the yard which is then soaked into the soil. The water may also run off back into coastal waters or eventually find its way into streams and lakes. The end result is that eventually these micro plastic fibers go back into our marine systems. They also eventually find their way into the bodies and digestive systems of various types of marine animals. This is how these particles are leaching their way back into the food chain.

The author does not say, but the end result of all this is that eventually these particles are going to work there way all the way up the food chain to us. So, we will end up actually eating these nasty clothing particles. Certainly that cannot be good for us, or any of the huge number of other animals and creatures that would have already consumed these items on the way up the food chain.

I wonder what we can do to solve this problem. The main doctor who has been studying this problem discovered that the main culprit to all of this was polyester. That a single polyester garment can potentially release up to 1900 of these micro plastic particles from just a single washing. I suppose that we could choose to avoid polyester and other synthetic type of clothing. But, is this really a realistic possibility in the modern world? Somehow I do not think that modern western society is going to be easily convinced that they need to reject synthetic clothing.

I also wonder if this is enough of a threat to really make its way to the top of the food chain. Would these particles survive countless creatures ingesting and digesting them? I also wonder if there poisonous effects would lessen over time, or if there would be enough degradation or decomposition over time to cause it to not be a problem? Then again, I do not really want to have to wait and see if it will potentially wreak havoc in the eco system, even on the lower levels.

I was also a little concerned that the author did not seem able to articulate much in the way of solutions to this problem. Of course it starts with us, and I am well aware that we each need to do our part. But short of choosing not to wear garments made from synthetic material, I really am at a loss to think of what we can do to help solve the problem. I am open to solutions and certainly willing to help.

Anonymous
After doing further research on the topic of micro plastics I now feel more competent to share some thoughts about these items. The first thing to note is that these items are already in our oceans and even some lakes and streams. So the thought of keeping them out of these systems is already over; we are too late to avoid it, and now need to focus on how to mitigate the damage that might result and what to do to keep more of these things from doing even more damage.

The basic problem is that most plastic does not readily decompose. As they break down, they just simply become smaller and smaller amounts of plastic. Unfortunately, they are still plastic. Most other organic items decompose and then actually change into a number of other components. Many of these items are actually beneficial for the environment. Not so with plastics.

Another way to look at this problem is by examining what are called nurdies. Yes, folks, nurdies. These are a type of plastic material, not those weird kids who were made fun of during our school years. These are little tiny plastic pellets which are in reality the raw materials used for manufacturing all types of plastic goods. It is estimated that more than 250 billion pounds of these things are shipped around the world each year. Unfortunately, they escape from ships, factories and even port facilities. Eventually, these little particles end up on our beaches. Five years ago, it was thought that these items made up about 10 percent of the plastic debris on our beaches.

Another problem is that is nearly impossible to clean up or remove these nurdies, due to their small size. There are also even smaller specs of plastic (which eventually gets us to the level of micro plastics). Some beaches may even have more plastic particles than sand. I do not know about you, but I found this to be truly incredible. This is a massive problem which is only bound to get worse.

There are even plastic particles too small to be seen with the naked eye. These plastic fragments contaminate beaches and water surfaces the world over. Recently a number of different researchers took random samples from 18 different sites over six continents ranging from the poles to the equator. Every site showed some level of contamination from these micro plastic debris particles.

The more I thought about this problem, the more I realized that likely the bulk of the solution, at least as far as not making the problem any worse, is going to have to come from industry. This means clothing manufacturers and the companies that make and produce washing machines.

Maybe these groups can unite together and pool resources in order to come up with a solution. I wonder if it is possible to either build a washing machine that does not remove these micro plastics, or to produce synthetic clothes using different materials.

Kathy Faust
I get angry every time I read something like this. It’s like we go out of our way to do things to destroy the environment. Isn’t it even remotely possible for us to live here without being a virus on the planet? We have to poison it with even our clothing? And of course we are obsessively washing our clothing and multiplying the problem. We all do it. How many times have you washed the clothes of your children that you found on the floor only to realize that the item was never even worn? That means you just wasted water, soap, and managed to pollute the water with this microplastic at the same time.

It’s time to go completely organic, clothing and all. Plastic does not have to be a part of every single thing we ever do on this planet. It is half the reason that the job market is so limited now and that we have become such a disposable society.

Thank you for writing this and trying to share some awareness with the public. It’s information like this that needs to be spread far and wide. Education is the only thing that is ever going to make us change anything before an outright worldwide disaster does it.

Anonymous
Another question that I had while reading the article was how widespread is this problem. Maybe all of this is true, but perhaps it is a bit alarmist? After reading the rest of the article I do not think that it is alarmist at all. In fact, the author points out that a noted ecologist, Dr. Mark Browne, actually undertook a study to see just how widespread these micro plastics have become. Samples from 18 different beaches around the world were taken and examined. Every sample showed evidence of micro plastic contamination.

To me, this is incredibly scary. The fact that the areas with the highest concentrations were near major cities was the fact which led Dr. Browne to further study and examination of this problem.

Of course, all of this leads to the question of what can we do to help solve this problem. I suppose one of the things that can be done is to increase awareness of the problem. Then, maybe try and lobby the clothing manufacturers and washing machine makers to implement changes which can reduce the impact of this problem.

Anonymous
I must confess that I had never heard of micro plastics before reading this article. I am certainly not a fear monger, but it does seem to me that this is something which we should take note of. The author does a very nice job of actually explaining the problem regarding micro plastics. It seems almost surreal to me that by using clothes made from synthetic materials I could actually be contributing to a problem that will eventually cause serious problems.

According to the article, as we wash clothes (especially those made from synthetic materials) in our machines, they release these little miniature plastic particles into the environment. Then, over time, these particles reach the groundwater and rivers, and then they eventually leach into others animals as they feed. Then, other animals eat them and so on, until these particles have become entrenched in our environment. The problem is that these particles do not decay or break down on their own. This is what makes them very dangerous, especially when it is considered that they can build up in the systems of all different types of animals.