Plastics in the Waste Stream: The Macro Problem of MicroPlastics
Marine Plastic Pollution is Pervasive, Persistent, and Predatory
It’s finally summertime and that means millions of people are packing up their SUVs and heading to the beach like their winged counterpart the seagull, bringing with them coolers of packaged food, bottled water, sunscreen, and plastic bags.
For decades, people have treated the beach and by extension the ocean with little regard, leaving plastic waste behind to pollute the shores while we return to the grind of daily life. Our seasonal visits to the coast do not come with a price-tag, but for seagulls and all other marine dwellers, the price for our conveniences is extremely high.
The Volume of Ocean Plastic Pollution is Overwhelming
With the University of Georgia’s Jenna Jambeck’s startling research published earlier this year, we now know that roughly 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of land-based plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010 alone.
Some plastics like polyethylene, used to produce plastic shopping bags or six-pack rings, or polypropylene, used in soda bottles caps, can be found at the surface as they will float. Plastics with greater densities, like the PVC used to make swim rings, sink to the floor, making not only a clean-up solution near impossible but also making estimates of marine plastic waste a great challenge.
Jambeck discovered that the main source of land-based plastic waste is from mismanaged waste management systems. Solid waste management is one of the last infrastructure priorities as it does not immediately threaten human health. With this revelation, Jambeck was able to create several models that traced the origin of plastic waste and consequently the amount contaminating marine environments. Jambeck states that the estimated total of land-based plastic waste is the equivalent to “finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined.”
As Angela Sun reports in her documentary film, Plastic Paradise, the plastics industry produced roughly 20 million pounds in 1927, but by 1942 production increased by 300% to a total of 650 million pounds of plastic that were devoted to war. Back in 1943, plastic’s durability, flexibility and indestructibility were what made it ideal to use in the manufacturing of wartime products such as body armor, helmet liners, parachutes, and endless other necessities.
Now those characteristics are exactly what make plastic such a harmful pollutant. Every plastic ever made still exists somewhere in some form because plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose cleanly.
Microplastics Compound Toxic Contamination of Marine Life
The once pristine, opal sands of many beaches are now dusted with bright colors, an unseemly sea of salt and pepper and bright sprinkles. But these brightly colored sprinkles are much deadlier than their ice-cream-topping cousin. These colored bits, when less than 5mm, are called microplastics: microscopic particles of old plastic.
Microplastics are divided into three rough categories: micro fragments, the fragmented pieces of macro plastic, microbeads, tiny plastic particles that are present in many face soaps, body washes and toothpastes, and then microfibers, the plastic fibers used in your clothing, bedding or towels.
Think about how many times you have used an exfoliating face wash or just brushed your teeth. Every single time you’ve used those products, the microbeads and microfibers that act as an abrasive enter our waterways because they’re far too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment facilities. A single piece of synthetic clothing can shed 1,900 plastic microfibers in its lifetime through the washing machine, and all these fibers will end up lining the coast because of their accumulating presence in sewage waterways.
Plastic waste that enters our oceans breaks down at an alarming rate. These plastics, from your childhood rubber duck to the hundreds of mechanical pencils you’ve used, instead of decomposing, fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.
When plastic breaks up through photodegradation and weathering, it also acts as a ‘sink’, or a sponge, for toxic substances that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBTs). These chemicals, which include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), resist degradation in the environment so they can last for several years to several decades. Furthermore PAHs, a proven cancer-causing substance, are present in all environments as the toxin is released any time organic matter is burned.
PBTs enter the environment in numerous ways, through pesticides, industrial manufacturing, or municipal waste combustion facilities, to name a few. What’s particularly concerning is that these PBTs also enter the food web through marine organisms’ absorption of PBT from polluted water, ingestion of PBT via contaminated microplastic, or consumption of another organism that has traces of PBT in its tissue. If and when these toxic substances bioaccumulate in the tissue of marine species, they can be further transferred up the food chain, to us.
From Hawaii to Alaska, the Breadth of Plastic Pollution is Breathtaking
Congruently these microplastics are not just present at the ocean surface, they’re everywhere.
At the southernmost tip of the Big Island in Hawaii is Kamilo Beach, colloquially dubbed the dirtiest beach in United States. Historically, the beach was a known location for those who were lost at sea to wash ashore, but now the beach is known as “Plastic Beach” because the world’s plastic waste swirling along the Pacific Rim currents washes up on its shore daily.
A combination of local wind currents, island topography and geography cause the island to be a land-filter for the thousands of pounds of plastic waste and microplastics that wash up on its shore. A place where Native Hawaiians would carve evergreen logs into dugout canoes to drift along the Pacific Northwest currents is now a storage bay for plastic pollution.
Microplastic fragments and microbeads have even reached the seemingly far ends of the Earth. Through her study of diatoms (microscopic algae that live under sea ice) Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist at Dartmouth College, discovered that Arctic sea ice is contaminated with microplastics.
All four Arctic ice core samples, taken from different locations, were contaminated by brightly colored microplastics. Instead of crystallized water, the samples were more like a melting plastic kaleidoscope with anywhere from thirty-eight to several hundred pieces of microplastic, from polyethylene to rayon. With the acceleration of multi-year melting of Arctic ice from climate change, soon all of our water supply will be contaminated with our plastic pollution.
Bioplastics Adoption will Mitigate the Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution
Undoubtedly MHG’s 100% biodegradable PHA plastic can help significantly decrease the amount of petro-plastic used to manufacture single-use items like plastic bags, carryout containers, and utensils.When thinking about microplastics, MHG’s bioplastic solutions will also reduce the amount of petro-plastic entering the waste stream and our waterways. This is an obvious conclusion, but take a minute to consider the effects.
Since MHG’s PHA bioplastic decomposes organically in all six mediums (soil, freshwater, marine, industrial and home composting) products made from the resins will naturally biodegrade in the environment, never leaving any toxic trace or plastic shards.
By replacing petrochemical plastic with MHG’s bioplastic resins, there will also be a decrease in the amount of microplastic particles that are contaminating all of our water sources, marine and land organisms, and humans.