By Molly Leischner
| We’ve known about the ongoing problem of large pieces of trash in our oceans and the damage it does to marine life for decades now, but it’s the potential harm caused by microplastics that is still a bit of a question mark.
According to an article in National Geographic, we are producing four times as much plastic as we were in the 1980s. We still often see large hunks of plastic lying on our beaches and floating in the sea, but where in the ocean every last piece of plastic is going remains a mystery. Scientists from the nonprofit advocacy group 5 Gyres collected plastic samples from different parts of the ocean and then “used computer models to estimate the extent of the garbage problem worldwide. They estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean.” Interestingly enough, they only found about one-hundredth as many sand-sized particles as they had predicted. At a first glance, the fact that they found significantly less plastic than expected sounds like good news – but this actually suggests that scientists are unable to detect the microplastics that roam the oceans. Why? Because they are simply too tiny or have been ingested by animals, possibly resulting in the deaths of many creatures. Since plastic doesn’t rot, it can last up to 500 years on earth. High winds, crashing waves, and intense sunrays all contribute in breaking plastics into tiny particles that are undetectable by nets. Researchers noted that “the plastic may be washing up on beaches or sinking down to the bottom quicker than expected,” and that they “also suspected UV degradation, biodegradation, ingestion by organisms, [and] decreased buoyancy due to fouling organisms” could be possible explanations for where all the plastic is going.
Microplastics – or all plastics in fact – can contain very high concentrations of agricultural and industrial toxins. Many animals, such as fish, mistaken these particles for food and ingest them, and later end up on our plates. This cycle shows that our excessive plastic production is very harmful to not only our environment but to ourselves as well. As a society we need to change our consumption behavior by paying attention to the packaging of products or by using paper or reusable bags when shopping. Lucky for us Seattleites, we have already taken a step towards reducing the amount of plastic bag usage in our area but it is time for others to follow in our footsteps.