What are microplastics, and why are they a problem?
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm in size (no larger than a pencil eraser).
Microplastics are classified into two types: primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are intentionally manufactured plastic particles, like nurdles or pellets used in the production of plastic items and microbeads found in some cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are formed when larger plastic items break down, like particles from car tires, clothing fibres and fragments from larger plastic objects.
How are microplastics formed?
Microplastics can come from many sources, including food and drink packaging like plastic containers, bottles and wraps, as well as personal care items like face masks and gloves. They can also be released during the use of plastic-containing products, like fishing gear, car tires and fibers released from clothing.
Microplastics find their way into the environment through our households, cities, coasts, agricultural lands and industries, primarily through treatment plants, city stormwater sewers, runoff and mismanaged waste.
What is the impact of microplastic pollution on the environment?
Microplastics have been discovered in all environments on Earth, including oceans, freshwater, soil, air, wildlife, food, drinking water and even our own bodies! They have been found in remote areas such as Antarctica and Mount Everest.
Microplastics stay in the environment for a long time and, even though they are small individually, they contribute significantly to the global plastic pollution problem.
Since plastic is derived from oil and gas, its manufacturing process releases harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Microplastics pose risks to ecosystems, food security, human health and the economy because:
- Small organisms often mistake microplastics for food, leading to blockages in their stomachs.
- Microplastics can contain toxic chemicals like dyes, flame retardants and hardening agents which can affect animals’ hormone balances.
- When animals consume microplastics, toxic substances can leach into their bodies, potentially causing harmful effects.
- Microplastics can also transfer harmful bacteria or invasive species to new environments.
Why Aren’t Microplastics Regulated?
To stop microplastic and microfiber pollution at the source, decision makers require large amounts of scientific data. Policymakers and industries need to know the types of microplastics in our environment to identify and address pollution sources.
But studying microplastics is not easy. It is challenging and often requires extensive time and effort for reliable results.
- Research requires large vessels and equipment
- Microplastics have been found in all layers of our oceans, from surface waters to deep seabeds. Most available research tools limit researchers to sample only the top layer of oceans and lakes.
- It is difficult to transport a lot of heavy water
- Since most microplastics are too small to be seen with the naked eye, a lot of water needs to be collected to find enough microplastics, and water is heavy! Typically, containers of water are collected and carried to another location where the water can be filtered without worry of contamination from the air. It is a strenuous task for a researcher.
- Microplastics in the air can contaminate samples
- Whenever a sample of water is exposed to air, researchers risk contaminating the samples with microplastics from their own clothing or equipment. To ensure samples are not spoiled by contamination, water is filtered and analysed in a cleanroom (an isolated room with an air filter), but not all researchers have access to a microplastics-friendly cleanroom.
- Microplastic studies differ in methods, so it is hard to compare studies
- It is hard to compare studies because researchers use different procedures and equipment. Measuring microplastics and characterizing them in a consistent way is essential to understand their sources and potential impacts on wildlife. Standardization is lacking in microplastics research, which makes it challenging to compare findings across different areas. Without consistent reporting metrics, comparing different research studies results becomes comparing apples to oranges.
- More local data needed
- Microplastic pollution varies from one location to another, making it crucial to gather information from different places to effectively stop its sources. Unfortunately, there are not enough researchers available to study every city for microplastic contamination. Local research is needed to expand the reach of current scientific knowledge and develop targeted solutions that can address the issue at its source.
How Can We Stop Microplastic Pollution?
Ocean Diagnostics develops technology, tools and laboratory services to empower data collection, to better detect and diagnose our planet from plastic pollution. We are committed to science and data, and never stop innovating ways for microplastics scientists and community scientists to discover answers to important research questions. Our solutions to overcome microplastics research include:
The Ascension Depth Profiler:
The Ascension Depth Profiler is a portable and easy-to-deploy instrument that collects microplastics underwater without transferring large water volumes. It works from any small boat, kayak or platform and can go up to 200 meters deep (or 400 meters with a winch), while providing real-time monitoring of depth, temperature, flow rate, and total filtered volume.
The Saturna Imaging System:
The Saturna Imaging System helps scientists and community researchers study visible microplastic particles quickly. It's designed for particles larger than 400 μm, like those collected from Manta trawls, neuston nets or beach studies. This device gives standardized measurements for microplastics’ size and colour metrics. It's included in our Community Science and Educational Toolkits, empowering local researchers to gather real data and contribute to understanding microplastic pollution in their areas.
The Microplastics In-Situ Sensor:
The sensor can instantly analyze microplastics in water. It does this on the spot, without needing to send samples to a laboratory. This smart technology gives researchers quick and reliable information about microplastics in our environment. It's a powerful tool for monitoring and understanding their presence and characteristics.
Equipped with Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy, our laboratory offers chemical identification of plastic, enhancing the ability to determine the sources of microplastics.
Working with government entities and collaborators, our laboratory actively contributes to incorporating chemical identification into research efforts. By integrating this data into studies on microplastics, we aim to provide valuable insights that can lead to more effective policy measures and actions to address the issue of microplastic pollution.
Out laboratory also offers consulting and study design services to further enhance researchers’ capabilities.
With these innovative tools and technologies, we empower researchers, community scientists and organizations in their efforts to study, understand and combat the issue of microplastic pollution.