Recently, plastic pollution has been a recurrent headline in news articles and research papers. Once in a while, we find on our social feeds photos of newly discovered garbage patches, animals entangled in plastic bags, or inert whales after excessive ingestion of debris. The harms of plastic to animals is already giving the concerned community a headache, yet, there is a much more terrifying form of plastic pollution: microplastic.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic debris in the environment, ranging from a few millimeters (barely visible to the human eye) to the nanoscale (size of a virus). These particles are the result of the gradual degradation of bigger plastic objects and other fibers, like synthetic clothing fibers from washers that directly enter the environment as microplastic. The term “microplastic” was introduced in the early 1970s, when a marine biologist, “Ed Carpenter […] noticed peculiar, white specks floating amidst the mats of brown sargassum seaweed. After some investigating he discovered they were tiny bits of plastic“ (Scientific American). Since then, the mere curiosity has become the topic of countless studies, in a race to explain the potential harms and present a solution to this form of plastic pollution.
Like an iceberg, the visible plastic debris carried by ocean currents are only a glimpse of the reality. Tiny microplastics that escape our sight are more dangerous because they can be easily ingested by animals of all sizes, including freshwater insects. Not only they represent a threat to animals, microplastics are also pervasive in our food chain and have multiple ways of entering our bodies. For instance, studies have found that “sea salt around the world has been contaminated by plastic pollution” (The Guardian). Though the effects of microplastics on human health are still unclear, the potential list is frightening: “cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues” (Carleton College).
While researchers are still conducting studies about microplastic, you can, on an individual level, contribute to reducing the additional amount of plastic polluting the environment. At the University of Rochester, you even get rewarded when avoiding single-use plastic containers. Start making a difference!
Written by Kelly Jean, Class of 2021
Image Credit: PerkinElmer