Recently, a study showed that microplastic particles occur in the air in remote French Pyrenees. There were no anthropogenic sources of microplastics far around, leading to one conclusion – microplastics were “raining” down in the air. While we have long been aware of the problems plastic pollution is causing, microplastics are taking them to an entirely new level. Microplastics are ubiquitous.
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Microplastics are defined as very small plastic particles with a diameter less than 5 mm. While it is also used in some products, such as facial cleansers, it is mostly a result of plastic degradation. Unfortunately, recycling plastics does not help reduce the pollution as microplastic particles are still produced, just more slowly. Furthermore, even biodegradable plastics are no better in this respect, as they only decompose partially and leave behind a variety of synthetic polymers. Thus, the only way to stop further microplastic pollution is by reducing the usage of plastics.
Effects of microplastics on the environment
While microplastics have grasped our attention only recently and we lack knowledge about the effect such pollution may have on the environment, nanoplastics (even smaller plastic particles) are an even larger unknown. However, microplastic fibres are dangerous for animals, as they can form a knot in the gut and prevent egestion. Additionally, many pollutants, such as heavy metals or hormone-disrupting chemicals, adhere to microplastics. Consequently, they are dangerous for animals that accidentally consume them. Furthermore, there is also evidence that microplastics increase the rate of cancer in fish.
The guts of 35% of all fish of the Northern Pacific Gyre contained microplastics, showing well the extent of microplastics spread. Additionally, nanoplastic particles are so small that they can pass in animal cells. And research has shown that they affect the endocrine system and behaviour in marine species. As microplastics and nanoplastics are so small, they affect even the smallest organisms. Thus their effects can easily propagate thorough the entire food chain.