Ashley Breault | Marketing Intern | Ocean Studies and Communications Student at University of New England
We recognize that marine debris has become an alarming problem in our ocean. We’ve seen plastic bags, bottles, cans, and straws along the shore and images of huge garbage patches in the ocean. What we don’t see is the tiny bits of plastics, called microplastics, that are just as dangerous to the marine environment as larger, unsightly debris.
Microplastics are particles that are less than 5mm in size that enter the ocean environment in many different ways. Common culprits include face washes and other personal care products such as toothpaste, containing tiny plastic abrasives. These products are washed down the drain, giving them an easy pathway to the ocean.
Microplastics don’t break down over time, instead they float throughout the water column or sink to the ocean’s bottom. They are then easily ingested by marine critters that mistake them for food particles. Research has shown that microplastics even affect the plankton at the bottom of the food chain. In turn, the microplastics get passed up the food chain to animals higher and more crucial to a balanced ecosystem.
Not only are a wide variety of marine animals directly ingesting these microplastics, but the plastics are also made with chemicals that can leak out into the ocean. These chemicals have unknown impacts, which makes them a potential threat to the marine environment on yet another level. And, other chemicals within the ocean can stick to microbeads, making them more harmful still.
When chemicals or toxins affects the lower levels of the food chain, the organisms higher up the food chain eventually suffer the consequences, and often times this is more evident. This process is called biomagnification. Small plankton are ingesting the plastics and are not able to grow because of this, and this then affects all the marine organisms that use plankton as a food source, such as fish and whales.
Humans are at the top of the food chain, meaning we are also subject to the affects of microplastics. There are many ways we can help prevent microplastics from entering the water column. There are plans in the works on the Federal level to help prevent amplification of this problem. By July 2017, you will no longer be able to buy products with microbeads thanks to a bill, The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, passed by President Obama. Large companies are no longer able to manufacture these bath products and next year they will be off the shelves completely. This initiative is an impactful step in the right direction to help prevent further pollution and damage to the marine environment.
So what can you do? The first step is education. By knowing more about these microplastics, where they come from, and what they do to the environment, you will can make smarter choices about the products you buy.
Microplastics are also created when larger plastics brake down. By limiting your overall plastic usage, you can help prevent the production and entrance of plastics of all sizes in to the marine ecosystem.
Volunteer to Join a Beach Cleanup!
Our colleagues at Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation have been tracking marine debris on the NH coastline and in the Gulf of Maine since 2001. They conduct monthly beach cleanups on 12 beaches along the coastline. Data collected at the cleanups provide valuable information about trends in marine pollution. To learn more and find out how you can volunteer for a beach cleanup, click here.