The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, Now the Plastic Age?

Microplastics may be the biggest challenge to our planet's oceans

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, an estimated 1.4 billion pounds of trash finds its way into the oceans each year. While that is an undeniably horrifying measurement all on its own, recent research highlights yet another major problem. After analyzing samples collected from the River Tame in the United Kingdom, scientists concluded that the world’s seas are also contaminated by far more microplastics than previously believed.

After the water probe, researchers declared the river as having the “highest microplastic pollution discovered in the world.” The most polluted area in River Tame was filled with more than 500,000 microplastic particles per square meter, making it “the worst concentration ever reported.” Additionally, the study noted that nearly a third of the tiny plastic pollutants were comprised of microbeads, which are commonly found in beauty and personal hygiene products.

The bad reputation of microbeads is no secret. The environmental threats posed by the small spheres prompted then-Pres. Obama to sign the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. And earlier this year, the U.K. made it illegal for manufacturers to produce anything that contains microbeads.

It’s hard to imagine that an estimate of five trillion pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans is too modest, but apparently developing an efficient cleanup plan is even more difficult. First off, there’s substantial doubt about whether removing all the microplastic from the ocean is even feasible. Researchers have experimented with using plankton to pull microplastics to the ocean floor, which could only address the surface pollution. Of the world’s discarded plastic, only about nine percent is recycled, and government attempts at intervention have been met with pushback from corporations that object to the restrictions. And unfortunately, water filtration systems aren’t entirely foolproof.

“Current standard water treatment systems do not filter out all of the microplastics,” said Dr. Anne Marie Mahon after a 2017 study she conducted revealed plastic particles in 83 percent of tap water around the world. “There is nowhere really where you can say these are being trapped 100 percent. In terms of fibers, the diameter is 10 microns across, and it would be very unusual to find that level of filtration in our drinking water systems.”
The big problem is that the impact on human health is relatively unknown with few studies looking into the harmful effects of microplastics on humans.
In case it isn’t abundantly clear that these plastic pollutants in the ocean aren’t some distant underwater problem, we can’t afford to dismiss the harmful impacts on animals and humans who consume the tainted water.

“Plastics pollution is killing thousands of sea birds and other marine life every year. Fish mistake micro plastics for food, which causes intestinal injury and transfers plastic into the food chain to other marine mammals and ultimately humans,” says Anders Jacobson, CEO and president of Bluewater, a water purification company with a mission to provide clean, sustainable options for drinking water around the globe.

“The big problem is that the impact on human health is relatively unknown with few studies looking into the harmful effects of microplastics on humans,” Jacobson adds. “What we do know is that nearly 90 percent of plastic water bottles in the U.S. contain microplastics, and when those microplastics are consumed, they are harmful to the hormone levels in the human body due to the chemicals found in plastics. Earlier research has shown that some plastics contain an endocrine-disrupting chemical that can interfere with normal hormonal function.”

While scientists gather numbers that more accurately reflect how we’ve overwhelmed our oceans, Jacobson forges ahead with Bluewater’s mission by working directly with affected communities.

“Over the past few years we’ve been going straight into the communities affected by water pollution and have donated our SuperiorOsmosis water purifiers in communities like Flint, Michigan, and at sporting events like America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race,” Jacobson says. “We’ve seen great success in reduction of single-use plastics in these areas.”

In the end, Jacobson insists it will take a global effort to slow the progress of the human-induced crisis that threatens the vitality of the world’s seas.

“In regards to planetary health, plastic pollution from single-use plastic water bottles and other materials are being tossed into our oceans and causing immense pollution,” he explains. “Incidences like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are going to become more and more of a frightful reality if our governments, communities and we as humans don’t come together to find more sustainable solutions.”

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