Microplastic Pollution Causing Frogs to Croak
By Jeremy Kuhles
You will have likely seen the upsetting photograph of a plastic straw wedged up the nose of a sea turtle. You may have seen other images of sea creatures wrapped up in human trash. These shocking pictures have increased awareness of the harm our litter is doing to aquatic life. In fact, the images of the turtle drove a campaign to ban plastic straws. A positive trend that seems to have caught on far and wide.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Plastic bottles bobbing along waterways are all too common a sight nowadays. Wander along a beach, and you may stumble (I hope not literally) over a pile of plastic trash. Bulky plastics are a big problem. But bulky plastic doesn’t stay bulky forever. Aquatic life is now facing dangers that are smaller and potentially much more deadly. Microplastics.
What are microplastics?
Look up “microplastics,” and National Geographic will give you a definition. Tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter. Research some more and you will find that microplastics are everywhere. Literally everywhere. From the bottom of the ocean to the highest place on earth near the peak of Mt. Everest. And that is really bad news.
Plastic has revolutionized the way we live. It has brought large-scale convenience to our lives. But it has the potential for an unprecedented environmental disaster. It’s important to learn about the issues we are facing with microplastic pollution. Then find ways to tackle them.
Primary microplastics—very close to home
Scientists divide microplastics into two types. Primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. The chances are you are wearing primary microplastics as you read this. You may have used them during your morning cleansing routine. Why? Because primary microplastics are the plastic fibers in nylon and other textiles. They are the microbeads in toothpastes and exfoliating face washes. And nurdles—the small pellets of plastic used in manufacturing everyday plastic products.
These microplastics get into our waterways in many ways. Via a vigorous spin cycle in the laundry machine. Or straight down the plughole after a thorough face scrub. And if there is an unintentional nurdle spillage, the wind will blow them far and wide. Once they are there, they cause serious problems to aquatic life.
Secondary microplastics—a natural breakdown
Secondary microplastics form when larger plastics break down. Usually through exposure to wind, waves, or sunlight. Those bobbing plastic bottles don’t keep their form forever. It’s not only the wind and sun that create secondary plastics. Alison Pearce Stevens from ScienceNewsforStudents states that animals can do this too. She talks about a study where Antarctic krill broke down plastics into nanoplastics. Smaller pieces than microplastics. This creates even more problems as nanoplastics are so small they can enter cells.
How do microplastics cause direct harm to aquatic life?
So, what’s the problem with these tiny pieces of plastic? Well, microplastic pollution in rivers and oceans causes untold damage to life. Many unsuspecting aquatic creatures and birds are eating the plastic thinking it’s food. This means the creatures feel they are full when in fact, their stomachs are full of plastic. The outcome is their growth and reproductive abilities weaken. The plastic can also cause deadlier problems. If it gets stuck in the animals’ throats, it can block their digestive tracts and kill them. Plastic may also contain toxic elements which poison the animals.
Big fish eat the little fish—pollution in our food chain
It’s not just the animals that come into first contact with the plastic that are suffering. Scientists have discovered that the microplastic pollution problem runs very deep. Studies revealed that plankton can ingest these tiny bits of plastic. Why is this a problem? Because plankton are an essential part of the ocean ecosystem. They are the base of the food chain. A food chain with humans perched at the top. And of course, microplastics are there for the entire ride. They are non-biodegradable. That means they hang around. For a very long time.
Alison Pearce Stevens explains that scientists have found microplastics in many different animals. Of all shapes and sizes. These include tiny crustaceans, frogs, birds, and whales. And there is every possible chance that humans will be on that list, soon enough.
Lunch with a side of microplastic—what does it mean for humans?
Microplastic isn’t just a problem if you live in the ocean. At some point, that fish ends up on the dinner table. Right now, studies into the effect of microplastic pollution on humans remain inconclusive. But logic would suggest that it can’t be good for us. There is so much plastic in the food chain. It’s likely we are eating and drinking, as well as breathing in, an unhealthy amount of plastic.
Ocean Blue Project—Microplastic Recovery Program
At Ocean Blue Project, we are tackling the microplastic pollution issue head on. We do this through a multi-pronged approach. One way is through our volunteer network. Another is promoting beach cleaning machines that reduce waste from beaches and rivers. We also go one step further by collecting data. We do this because greater knowledge has the potential to change systems. It can also help stem microplastic pollution at its sources.
Protecting the One World Ocean requires a one world response. If you want to help, join a volunteer beach cleanup. Or start your own to try and rid your local area of plastic. Do also get in touch with us if you would like to form a partnership.
Our Microplastic Recovery Program highlights some solutions to microplastics. The program is pushing for improved recycling programs along the coast. Better awareness campaigns through art and education. Banning plastic cutlery, straws, and single-use beverage cups. And state-investment in researching plastic-alternative materials.
Microplastic pollution—what can YOU do?
The sheer scale of the microplastic pollution problem is daunting. It can make us feel powerless to make a difference. But there are things we can do to at least stop the further spread of microplastics. Changing some of our ingrained behaviors is key.
Stop using single-use plastics. Reduce single-use plastics and you can reduce the potential for secondary microplastics. Plastic bottles and plastic bags are some of the worst offenders.
Buying new clothes? Check the label. Phil Byrne from Friends of the Earth asks the rather shocking question. “Could you be eating your own clothes?” Microplastics from clothing fibers enter waterways with alarming ease. So, we could well be. The next time you go clothes shopping, choose garments made from natural materials.
Plastic-free personal care: Think about the types of cosmetics you use. If they contain microbeads or plastic elements, consider switching to a different product.
Pick them up: The good news, if you can call it that, is that you can still see microplastics with the naked eye. Keep an eye out when walking along the beach or river. Microplastics can break down even smaller into nanoplastics. Try to catch them before that happens.
Plastic-not-so-fantastic—spread the word. One of the most important things we can do is to educate ourselves and others. A problem of this scale requires systemic change. This needs to come from our leaders, but it also needs us to buy in and change our behaviors. Let’s lead from the front and do what we can to make a positive difference.
Author Bio: Jeremy Kuhles is a writer, translator, and editor based in Tokyo, Japan. Living near a river and having a young family, he has every motivation to try and make a difference in the fight against climate change.