Microplastics are a very current topic due to the problems they can cause not only in marine animals, but also in humans. What is the true impact of microplastics on the oceans?

In this article, first, you will find out what microplastics are and what their impacts are on the oceans. In addition, we also show some recent news that involves its possible consequences for humans.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are very small plastic particles that are generally less than five millimeters. How is it possible for plastics to exist so small?

On the one hand, they can be produced during product development and, on the other hand, they result from the fragmentation of larger plastics.

For example, when washing jeans, up to 56,000 microfibers are released per wash. In this case, there are solutions to prevent microplastics from reaching the oceans: by reducing the number of washes and the use of microplastic collection bags.

How do they work? You can place your jeans inside the bag, filling it only 2/3 of its capacity to leave room for your clothes to move around.

At the end of the wash, remove the clothes and microplastics that were trapped in the collector and place them in plastic recycling.

There are two categories of microplastics :

  • Primers: designed for commercial uses, such as personal care products, clothing, fishing nets, among others. The European Parliament hypothesizes that these represent between 15% and 31% of microplastics in the oceans;
  • Secondary: originate from the fragmentation of larger plastics, such as water/juice bottles, due to external factors (UV radiation, wind, waves). In this case, they can be found between 69% and 81% in the oceans.
Graph showing the origins of microplastics

Source: Seas at Risk

What is the impact of microplastics on the oceans?

Do you know that more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced per year and that around 10 million end up in the oceans?

Graphic showing the origins of microplastics in the oceans

Through a study carried out in 2019, it is possible to verify the accumulation of macro and microplastics along the coastline (land area), in waters with a depth of less than 200 meters and in waters with a depth of more than 200 meters.

As you can see in the image below, between 2010 and 2015, there was a significant increase in the number of macroplastics. Furthermore, in deeper waters the amount of microplastics is visible over time, which assumes that their decomposition takes some time.

The fact that they can take thousands of years to decompose poses several environmental problems. Microplastics can come from waste disposal and water runoff and can be found in soil as well as in marine environments.

The impact on marine life

Of all pollution in the seas, 80% is plastic waste. Over time, these plastic materials have a greater capacity to absorb hydrophobic pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants, which have been found in plastics on beaches and coastal waters in several countries.

In addition to this exposure to chemicals, plastics can lead to habitat degradation, loss of biodiversity and the harm of marine species. Microplastics can spread invasive species, bacteria and viruses.

Still on this impact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that around 800 species of molluscs, crustaceans and fish have already ingested plastic.

Human beings do not escape this problem either.

Microplastics are transmitted to humans through ingestion of marine and terrestrial animals, but also through drinking water and dust. One of the consequences, according to Sandra Ramos , could be infections since as they are foreign particles the body will respond.

Authors also indicate that microplastics have the potential to cause some problems such as cancer, difficulties in reproductive activity and a decrease in the body's immune responses.

However, according to the European Parliament , it is not yet known what the real impact on health is, but the fact that plastics contain possibly toxic chemical substances means that they can be harmful.

In addition to having already been found in human feces, they have recently been found in the bloodstream. Laboratory experiments indicate that microplastics cause damage to human cells.

Microplastics were also discovered in breast milk in an Italian study.

They also have an impact on the climate

The impact of microplastics on the oceans is a reality, as are their consequences on the climate. Some plastics, in their degradation process or exposure to sunlight, release gases such as methane and ethylene that contribute to the greenhouse effect.

In short, we can say that microplastics are practically everywhere, even in personal hygiene products. These particles, measuring less than five millimeters, are divided into two categories: primary (produced for commercial uses) and secondary microplastics (exist due to the fragmentation of larger plastics).

Around 10 million tons of plastic are released into the oceans each year. This causes several problems for marine life and for humans.

Author: Daniela Matos