Imagining a world without plastics may feel impossible considering what a staple they are in today’s society, yet their large scale production and use only dates back to the 1950s. Since then, their production has surpassed most other man-made materials. It has been estimated that between the 1950s and 2015, approximately 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste has been manufactured, 60% of which currently resides in landfills or the environment, including our water.  While many people have heard about the large plastic islands floating out at sea, a more insidious form of plastic pollution is threatening aquatic life and human health. Microplastics.  Microplastic pollution is a pervasive environmental issue with far-reaching consequences for ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. These tiny plastic particles, less than 5 millimeters in size, have infiltrated every corner of our planet, from the depths of the oceans to the most remote mountain ranges. The sources of microplastic pollution are diverse and complex, and understanding them is crucial for mitigating this growing problem.

What are Microplastics? 

Primary Microplastics: 

Primary microplastics are intentionally produced tiny plastic particles. These include microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products, which were widely used in exfoliating scrubs and toothpaste. In 2015, the United States banned the production and sale of these products containing microbeads. Other primary sources include pellets used in the plastic production process and pre-production resin pellets. These plastics often find their way into water bodies through manufacturing and transportation.

Secondary Microplastics: 

Secondary microplastics result from the fragmentation of larger plastic items. Over time, plastic waste in the environment weathers and breaks down into smaller particles due to various physical processes, including UV radiation, mechanical abrasion, and temperature fluctuations. The disintegration of plastic bottles, bags, and fishing gear contributes significantly to secondary microplastics.

Where do they come from and where do they go? 

Understanding the diverse sources of microplastic pollution is essential for developing effective strategies to combat this environmental challenge. Efforts to reduce plastic production and consumption, improve waste management, and develop innovative solutions for capturing microplastics from various sources are crucial steps in addressing this issue and safeguarding the health of our waters and ultimately the ecosystem and public health.

Tire Wear:

One surprising source of microplastics is tire wear. As vehicles move, tires shed tiny particles of synthetic rubber onto road surfaces. Rainwater then transports these particles into rivers and oceans. The European Union identified tire wear as a significant source of microplastic pollution in a 2019 report.

Textile Fibers:

Microplastic pollution from textiles is another growing concern. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester and nylon, shed minuscule plastic fibers during washing. These microfibers are too small to be effectively captured by wastewater treatment plants and can eventually end up in the oceans. Recent studies have highlighted the extent of this issue, emphasizing the role of laundry and textile production in microplastic contamination.

Plastic Packaging:

Excessive use of plastic packaging materials, such as single-use bags, bottles, and packaging films, contributes significantly to microplastic pollution. These plastics often find their way into the environment due to improper disposal and littering. Inefficiencies in waste management systems also play a role in plastic pollution.

What is their impact?

Microplastics have a profound impact on aquatic health, endangering the delicate balance of aquatic ecosystems and posing risks to both marine life and human well-being.

Impact on Aquatic Life

  • Aquatic Organisms and Food Chain Disruption: Microplastics are ingested by a wide range of aquatic organisms, from zooplankton to fish, and even larger marine mammals. Once consumed, these particles can cause physical harm, block digestive tracts, and interfere with feeding behaviors. Microplastics can also disrupt the food chain, as smaller organisms ingest them and are, in turn, consumed by larger predators, eventually leading to human seafood consumption with potential health consequences.
  • Chemical Contamination: Microplastics act as sponges for toxic chemicals. They can absorb pollutants from the surrounding environment, including pesticides, heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants. When marine organisms consume microplastics, these contaminants can leach into their tissues, concentrating and accumulating in their bodies over time. This bioaccumulation can lead to health issues for the affected organisms and those higher up in the food chain.
  • Habitat Alteration: Microplastics can alter aquatic habitats. When they accumulate on the seafloor or other substrates, they can smother and degrade these environments, affecting the organisms that depend on them for shelter and food.
  • Behavioral Changes in Marine Species: Microplastics can affect the behavior of marine species. For instance, some fish may exhibit changes in swimming patterns and feeding behaviors when exposed to microplastics, potentially impacting their ability to thrive in their natural environment.
  • Long-Term Ecological Consequences: The cumulative impact of microplastics on aquatic health can have long-term ecological consequences, leading to shifts in species composition, population dynamics, and the overall structure of aquatic ecosystems.

Effects on Human Health:

Microplastics pose a potential threat to public health. While the full extent of the impact is still being researched, there are concerns about exposure through various pathways. Ingesting seafood contaminated with microplastics may introduce toxins and chemicals into the human body, potentially affecting health. Moreover, microplastics have been found in drinking water sources and even in the air we breathe, raising questions about their inhalation and ingestion. Studies suggest that these particles may have adverse effects on the respiratory system and could carry contaminants. The long-term consequences of microplastic exposure on public health remain an area of active investigation and concern.

What can we do?

Addressing the pervasive issue of microplastic pollution requires a multifaceted approach that involves various stakeholders, including governments, industries, and individuals. Here are key strategies to combat microplastic pollution:

  • Regulations and Bans: Governments can play a significant role by implementing regulations and bans on certain plastic products and additives, such as microbeads in cosmetics and single-use plastics. In the United States, eight states have currently banned single-use plastic bags, these include: California, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, Maine and Vermont.
  • Improved Waste Management: Strengthening waste management systems is critical. Better recycling and waste disposal infrastructure can help reduce plastic leakage into the environment. Effective waste collection and recycling programs can keep plastic waste out of rivers and oceans.
  • Innovation in Materials and Packaging: The development of eco-friendly alternatives to plastics and sustainable packaging solutions can minimize plastic use. Biodegradable materials and design innovations that reduce single-use plastic are essential for curbing the proliferation of microplastics.
  • Research and Monitoring: Continuous research and monitoring programs are essential to understand the sources and distribution of microplastics. This data can inform policies and help identify emerging threats.
  • Cleanup Efforts: Initiatives like plastic pollution cleanups and projects like “The Ocean Cleanup” aim to remove existing plastic from oceans. While these efforts won’t completely solve the problem, they can make a significant impact.
  • Consumer Choices:  Individual actions matter. Consumers can reduce their plastic footprint by choosing products with minimal plastic packaging, using reusable containers, and avoiding products containing microplastics.

Addressing microplastic pollution is a complex and ongoing challenge, but with collective efforts, it is possible to reduce its impact on the environment and public health. By implementing a combination of regulations, innovative technologies, and informed consumer choices, we can work towards a cleaner and more sustainable future.

At Coosa River Basin Initiative we are just beginning to research the scope of microplastic contamination in the Upper Coosa River Basin. We are looking forward to being able to share more information leading to the improvement of public health in our community. If you would like to support our initiative become a member today.

Many thanks to International Paper for awarding CRBI a grant which gives us the opportunity to research microplastic contamination in the Upper Coosa River Basin.