How Microplastic Pollution Affects Climate Change and Earth’s Cleaning System

Do you ever wonder why it feels so good to stand in the forest or beside the ocean? Why does the air seem crisp and clean? Why do we feel so peaceful and invigorated?

Not only are the oceans and forests alive with vibrant ecosystems and species, but they also play a central role in regulating Earth’s climate by acting as carbon sinks, meaning they produce clean air while capturing carbon. In other words, forests and oceans continually help to clean our atmosphere.

In the forest, this process is known as photosynthesis. In the ocean, phytoplankton (tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain) play a similar role. Trees, plants and plankton produce oxygen and clean our air from carbon. They are also primary food sources for our ecosystems and the base of the ocean food chain.

Nature’s regulatory systems are so important. Without them, too much carbon can accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat from escaping. This can cause extreme weather, food supply disruptions and increased wildfires, and contribute to excess smog and air pollution which can immediately affect people’s lungs. This trapped heat is leading to a global increase in temperature and decreasing the habitability of our climate for many of the species that live on planet Earth.

Plastic production, which is a primary product of oil and gas refinement, is a major contributing factor to greenhouse gases and climate change. During its production, harmful greenhouse gases including C02 are emitted while oil and gas are transformed into clean plastic feed stocks. After it’s made, plastic never truly decomposes. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, most of which are so small you can’t even see them.

Microplastics have been found in air, water, soil and even in humans. When plastic and microplastics enter or break down in the ocean they are often eaten by plankton and other marine species. Harmful chemicals associated with microplastics can be transferred into plankton, and it can cause them to feel full from ingesting the plastic particle even though they haven’t received any proper nutrition. By affecting plankton, microplastics threaten the ocean’s ability to capture carbon and impact the health of the base of ocean food systems.

Forests and oceans have intricate connections. Both regulate the Earth and sustain the livelihood of humans, species and ecosystems. By protecting them from plastic and microplastic pollution we can help to protect ecosystems and human health. Although this can seem complicated and hard to understand, citizens play a key role.

In partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ocean Diagnostics is launching a citizen science pilot project that engages community members in the Victoria, BC area to measure the levels of microplastics entering the Pacific Ocean through wastewater and stormwater outflows. The data collected in this study will be used to educate Canadians on the problem of microplastics pollution and how we can get involved.

The more people participate in citizen science, the more data we have to help scientists make new discoveries about microplastics and their effects on climate change and the world's oceans. Together, citizens and scientists can educate the public and influence policy-makers to act against microplastics pollution.

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