Microplastics – The Core IAS




  • An estimated 170 trillion plastic particles weighing about 2 million metric tons are currently afloat in the oceans across the world, according to a new study, which added that if no urgent action is taken then this number could nearly triple by 2040.
  • The situation is much worse than expected. In 2014, it was estimated that there were 5 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. Now, less than ten years later, we’re up at 170 trillion.
  • Although it’s difficult to point out the exact number, a vast majority of these plastic particles are micro plastics, which are particularly harmful to the oceans. They don’t readily break down into harmless molecules and marine organisms mistake plastic for food.
  • Although it’s difficult to point out the exact number, a vast majority of these plastic particles found on the ocean’s surface are micro plastics — these are tiny plastic particles that measure less than 5mm in diameter.

What are Micro plastics?

  • Micro plastics are particularly harmful to the oceans as they don’t readily break down into harmless molecules and adversely affect the health of marine organisms, which mistake plastic for food. Moreover, these particles can trigger loss of biodiversity and threaten ecosystem balance.

Findings of the new study

  • For their analysis, the researchers examined surface-level plastic pollution data from nearly 12,000 ocean stations in six major marine regions, from 1979 to 2019. Then they combined this with data they collected during their own expeditions. Finally, by using computer modeling, the researchers were able to come up with a global time series to estimate not only how much micro plastic is currently in the oceans but also how their concentration has changed over the years.
  • They found that from 1990 to 2005, the number of plastic particles more or less fluctuated. One of the reasons for this could be due to the effective implementation of important policy measures at the time. In the 1980s and 90s, there were some international policies, like MARPOL Annex 5 that enforced laws against dumping trash at sea. They were powerful laws that were enforceable and were preventative.
  • However, things went downhill soon after as the world began producing much more plastic than ever before. Since 2005 we have produced more than 5,000,000 tons of new plastic into the world, and with more plastic there is more pollution.
  • Therefore, as the study pointed out, the concentration of plastic particles including micro plastics in the ocean has skyrocketed in the oceans since the mid-2000s, and it continues to increase. Researchers further mentioned that if the world fails to take any drastic action about the issue, there will be a 2.6-fold increase in plastic flowing into aquatic environments by 2040.
  • So far this century the policies trying to address plastic pollution have been weak, and they have been voluntary and focused on recycling and cleanup. They just don’t work very effectively. That’s why in our paper we advocate for a strong UN treaty on plastic pollution that is enforceable, not voluntary, and preventative, not focused on Clean up and recycling.

How do micro plastics impact the oceans and marine life?

Several recent studies have detected micro plastics in marine organisms, from phytoplankton to whales and dolphins, which might prove hazardous for them. The ingestion of such particles can cause mechanical problems, such as lacerations and blockages to internal systems.

Ingested plastics can cause chemical problems by leaching absorb chemicals into organisms. We know that micro plastics absorb many hydrophobic compounds, like DDT, PCBs and other industrial chemicals, and evidence shows they can be released when ingested.

Not only this, but micro plastics can also disrupt the carbon cycle of the oceans. Normally, phytoplankton absorbs carbon and is eaten by zooplankton, which excretes the carbon in the form of faecal pellets that sink to the sea floor. Once these carbon-containing pellets reach there, the carbon can be remineralized into rocks — preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere.

But if zooplanktons consume micro plastics, their faecal pellets sink at a much slower rate, which means they are more likely to break apart or be eaten by other animals — “making it less likely that the carbon will reach the seafloor and become permanently sequestered”.

What can be done to limit plastic pollution in oceans?

Researchers of the latest study suggested that there is an urgent need to implement a global resolution to limit the production of single-use, throwaway plastic.

We need cities to be responsible for managing their waste so it does not leave their territory. We need to reduce the amount of chemical additives in new plastic products. If we talk about recycling, there have to be requirements that recycled plastic be used in new products. The industries that make plastic like to talk about how technically we can recycle all of it. But they don’t like to commit to buying recycled plastic, therefore recycling fails. They have to legally be required to put at least 75% recycled plastic in any new product.

Source: Indian Express

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