Risks & Hazards of Microplastics

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“Microplastics in oceans outnumber the stars in our galaxy by 500 times” (Chow, 2017).

New research has exposed that fibers from our clothing are poisoning our waterways and food chains on a substantial scale. Microfibers, which are tiny threads that are shed from fabric, have been discovered in massive amounts along shorelines where wastewater is discharged. Due to the large scale found researches are attempting to pinpoint where exactly these plastic fibers are coming from.

Synthetic fabrics are winding  up in the oceans as a form of micro plastics. Each time synthetic clothes are washed microplastics are released into the water stream, resulting in polluted river and oceans worldwide (Woolworth, 2017). Mark Browne, an ecologist, released a study over this issue in 2011, where he stated that microfibers account for 85% of human-made debris located on shorelines across the globe (Messinger, 2016).

Browne also discovered that since the 1960s, the pollution of microfibers  has increased by over 450%. After demonstrating this information Browne reached out to the world’s leading outdoor retailers like Nike, Patagonia, and Polatec, in search of help investigating this issue,  none of them agreed. Although, as the amount of microplastics composing our oceans grow, so does the body of research. Since then, outdoor retailers have been forced to address the issue. In 2015, Patagonia authorized the University of California Santa Barbara to perform a research project over the notorious Patagonia fleece and its ability to shed microplastics. The research revealed that a single fleece jacket sheds over 250,000 synthetic fibers during a machine wash. Outside Magazine estimated that, “consumers across the world are laundering 100,000 Patagonia jackets each year, the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags” (Woolworth, 2017). Furthermore, these fibers are not just a coast or marine concern, they are being found in freshwater as well. Of the 2,000 aquatic samples examined and processed by Browne, around 90% of the debris was microfibers in both oceans and freshwater.

The article “How Your Clothes Are Poisoning Our Oceans and Food Supply.”  specifically focuses on the massive impacts of microplastics on freshwater ecosystems. We constantly hear about microplastics affecting oceans. I was very surprised to find out that “The majority [71%] of what we’re finding in the tributaries are actually fibers,”..“They exceed fragments and pellets. It was shocking to see how plastic waste is consuming all of the bodies of water and shore lines. The Great Lakes are being affected by this plastic waste in many ways. The wildlife’s behaviors are being greatly affected. For example crabs that consumed microplastics ate significantly less than their counterparts. There are also chemicals in the makeup of the plastics that are leached into the environment and the marine life. BPA is a common one found in the production of plastics. BPA has shown to affect the sexing of fish. Originally created as a birth control hormone scientist found that it could work as a polymer as well. Because of these properties you see male fish’s sex organs changing to females. This directly affects the reproduction and continuation of the species. These chemicals can also stunt the growth of aquatic life. One of the other hazards is that microplastics have the inate ability to “absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues.” Thus poisoning other animals on the food chain including humans.  (Messinger 2016)

How do these fibers get into our water supply? Scientist believe it is through our washing machines. Although the washing machine industry is not ready to take action to incorporate a filter for these micro plastics The Plastic Soup foundation, a nonprofit based out of Amsterdam, has devised a few methods of extraction. First being a waterless washing machine that uses pressurized carbon dioxide and the second a nanoball that will attract the small plastic fibers so they are not taken through our water systems. Many suggest that we should have a filter retrofitted to our washing machine but they also brought up the point that sometimes it is hard for people to even clean their lint from the filter. No matter what solution the industry or people at home choose, we are still looking at a vast and hazardous problem. The Plastic Soup foundation found that over “4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing” can be released in one single wash. (Messinger 2016) It’s no wonder why we are being buried in our own trash. It is time to step away from plastics. I believe the future generations will look back on the era of one-use and plastics as outlandish as we look at the schools spraying DBT in the cafeteria while students were eating.  

Since Browne’s research, Patagonia has released a comprehensive update to examine the developing concern of ocean pollution from tiny fibers, which typically originate from synthetic textiles like nylon, acrylics and polyester, and can be found in products available to consumers across the globe.

According to Patagonia, “Research about microplastics pollution is just starting to emerge among scientists and our industry, but the shedding of microfibers from synthetic garments is a real concern. We’re taking it seriously—committing significant resources to learn more about the scope of the problem and develop an understanding of what steps we can take to help create impactful solutions” (Patagonia, 2017). Since the summer of 2016, Patagonia claims to have taken multiple actions and addressing key factors.  

Patagonia states that microfibers found in our ocean can come from a wide variety of textiles, like nylon, polyester, rayon, acrylic, and spandex, essentially everything, “from running shorts to yoga pants to fleece jackets and more” (Patagonia, 2017) Which demonstrates the need for commitment by all apparel industries throughout each product’s life cycle. Patagonia goes on to explain that apparel products are not the sole source for microplastics finding their way into our oceans. Other industries that contribute to this issue are fishing nets, bottle caps, packaging and plastic bags that eventual break down in the water. For Patagonia, the utmost concern to move forward is to “quantify the magnitude of the contribution of the various sources of microplastics to oceans” (Patagonia, 2017). Another fact made was that articles of clothing made with higher quality have been found to shed less when washing than products of lower quality synthetic products, which emphasizes the significance for not only manufacturers but also consumers to spend their money in gear made to last. Washing machines are a key step in the pollution process, which led Patagonia to focus on common appliances in households. Wastewater treatment plants are able to filter out around 65-92 percent of microfibers but are still responsible for a large amount of waste contributed to the environment. Patagonia set out plans for bringing their research to appliance industries and waste operators.

When Patagonia coordinated a group of scientists, academics and public advocates at their headquarters located in Ventura to examine the pollution of microplastics they determined that there is still a large body of knowledge that remains unknown. Patagonia has decided since the release of Browne’s research that they will take the leading role in researching this topic, “to inform clear headed decision making by everyone: the apparel and appliance industries, waste operators, other researchers, the media and more” (Patagonia, 2017).

Whenever we talk about microplastic, the first thing to think about is the tiny piece of plastic which floats on ocean or something get eaten by aquatic animals. Either floated plastic or these pieces eaten by animals would cause potential danger for human-being and primarily make inconvenience to daily life.

Two researchers from California are working on govern the plastic pollution on ocean and they always find bottles or bags everywhere. However, bottles and bags are not the big issues since they are visible and easy to pick. There are more troublesome things exist in ocean, which is the plastic beads. As we know, these beads are very tiny and some of them are transparent in water. According to Eriksen, most of these beads are from “beauty product” such as facial scrubs and cleansers. In other word, as we keep our body clean, we are throwing a lot of microbeads to our sewer systems or further to the grand water system. Our behaviour is actually hurting our living place badly, since some of these microbeads could react chemically with water to produce toxin and could also release heavy metal and oil to the water system.

These little beads sounds horrible right? However, Eriksen has told us a way to reduce it. There is: pick some products which has not include polyethylene or polystyrene, you can check it on the ingredients list. If all of us use the harmless beauty product,  there will be much less pressure to the water system from these beads.

Since the plastic is everywhere of the ocean nowaday, we can imagine every time we eat seafood, there will be some pieces of plastic gets into our mouth. Could you guess how many pieces plastic you might eat every year? There is a research from the University of Ghent in Belgium shows for Europeans, they consume almost 11000 pieces of plastic every year. It means they nearly eat 30 pieces plastic everyday, it sounds disgusting but it is the truth. More than that, we need consider where these plastic would go. Few of them would get absorbed by our body but most of them are just accumulated in our body. And if you keep eating more, it accumulates more. It sounds a little scary but it there are not enough evidence shows if they are toxic for our body. However, it’s enough to warn people to pay more attention on the plastic pollution in ocean. The number of plastic trash in the ocean for now is uncountable and we could never clean all of them. The only way we can make ourselves safer from ocean is to stop throwing trash into ocean and also need protect it as well, since the food chain always bring the trash to our table.

Sources:

“An Update on Microfiber Pollution.” The Cleanest Line. N.p., 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/02/an-update-on-microfiber-pollution/>.

Coleman, Stuart. “The Dangers of Microbeads”. Spirituality & Health. Spirituality & Health. LLC. Jan 2014. Web. 19 Apr 2017.

<http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/dangers-microbeads&gt;

Chow, Lorraine. “Microplastics in Oceans Outnumber Stars in Our Galaxy by 500 Times.”EcoWatch. EcoWatch, 24 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.ecowatch.com/microplastics-world-ocean-summit-2282357538.html>.

Messinger, Leah. “How Your Clothes Are Poisoning Our Oceans and Food Supply.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 June 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads>.

Moore, Thomas. “Microplastics in seafood could be a health risk, experts fear.” SkyNews. Sky UK. 25 Jan 2017. Web. 19 Apr 2017.

<http://news.sky.com/story/microplastics-in-seafood-could-be-a-health-risk-experts-fear-10739835&gt;

Whoolworth, Rachel. “Your Synthetic Shirt Is Killing Ocean Life.” Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. N.p., 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/newswire/microplastics-invisible-ocean-pollutant/&gt;.

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One thought on “Risks & Hazards of Microplastics

  1. randypeppler April 23, 2017 / 10:08 am

    Nice! You did a good job of describing a new hazard related to an old hazard, and the risks that they all pose to aquatic life and maybe our water. The microfiber issue with the material in leggings, etc., is simply fascinating.

    Like

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