We are all aware of how large plastic items such as disposable bags can be harmful to wildlife, from accidental ingestion to causing entanglement, but once they become ground down into tiny pieces surely they become less of a concern?
Sadly not. Plastics that enter the sea remain present for decades, merely becoming increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics (less than 5mm) are now found in every major ocean in the world and there are now even records of microplastics found at depths of over 3000m. Recent evidence estimates over four billion microplastic fibres are currently littering each square kilometre of deep sea sediment globally.
But why does this matter?
Tiny plastic fibres are easily ingested by animals along marine food chains, which can cause internal physical damage; however that is only a fraction of the problem. There is a mounting body of evidence that microplastics can absorbtoxins, aiding transfer of chemicals such as flame retardants and pesticides through the environment. When the microplastics are accidentally eaten, such toxins can then concentrate within marine animals, posing greater risk along food chains. Some additives recorded in microplastics by the International Pellet Watch include nonylphenol and bisphenol A, which are known to disrupt endocrine function and body processes whilst potentially impacting brain development, disrupting sexual development and are also carcinogenic.
As microplastics are now distributed throughout the world’s oceans, collecting them up again will not be a simple task, so perhaps the best solution is to stop the flow of plastic at its source. Aside from reducing our reliance on disposable plastics such as shopping bags and food packaging, other avenues recently highlighted include many products which contain ‘sneaky plastics’ hidden away where you least expect them… A prime example of this is the ‘micro-bead technology’ to be found everywhere from exfoliating skin creams to plaque removing toothpastes which contain ready-made microplastics in the form of tiny plastic beads to help you scrub.
However, despite the gloomy outlook perhaps it is not all bad news; as we become aware of the impacts of plastics on the environment, recycling of waste has rapidly increased. Recycling rates in the UK rose the fastest in Europe during 2000-2010, increasing from 12% to 39% of all municipal waste and with European-wide aims for all countries to reach 50% recycling of all waste by 2020 (a rate already surpassed by Germany, Austria and Belgium).
So perhaps with an outlook to producing less waste plastics, we can work to find alternatives that will still ensure a good scrub in the shower!
NB If you are interesting in checking out which brands are the worst offenders for sneaky plastics and which are seeking to improve: the Good Scrub Guide is working in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society to aid consumer choice: http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/the-good-scrub-guide/.
As always if you find a dead sunfish on the beach please get in touch!