Microplastics, small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long, have become known as one of the most dangerous polluters of our environment. In fact, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, “plastics makes up about 80 to 85% of marine litter.” In 1950, the amount of plastics produced was around 1.7 million tonnes, but has increased to 299 million tonnes in 2014. These particles, which contain polyethylene, nylon, and polypropylene, can enter the ocean through runoffs, or other terrestrial activities and have been found in large proportion in countries like Europe, India, or Southeast Asia. Sources of these pollutants range from toothpaste to facial cleanser as exfoliaters or may come from large plastic debris. Microplastics can have detrimental ecological effects on marine organisms and have the potential to alter the food chain. It is therefore the government’s duty to both decrease the production of these microplastics and to create technological devices to filter the ocean water of these pollutants.
Studies on microplastics have increased over the years as this relatively new pollutant has proven to be a significant issue. Microplastics have the potential to not only take up space in a marine organism’s digestive system, but can also absorb toxic chemicals from its surroundings. According to the World Economic Forum, microplastics are able to “cause many adverse effects such as cancer, impaired reproductive activity, decreased immune response, and malformation in animals and humans.” Because of bio magnification (as seen through the DDT crisis), the abundance of microplastics in the future poses serious health risks for humans as well. Ingestion of DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and polychlorinated biphenyls, chemicals that can sorb onto these plastics, are linked to pathological and oxidative stress as well as inflammation of the liver. Other chemicals such as styrene, and bisphenol A are linked to decrease endocrine activity because these chemicals disrupt the production of estrogen receptors such as Chg H or Vtg I, found from experiments in which Japanese medoka were treated with marine and virgin plastic treatment. Unexpectedly, Chelsea M. Rochman, Tomofumi Kurobe, Ida Flores, and Swee J. Teh also found an “abnormal proliferation of germ cells in one maile fish.” Either way, all these trials in both male and female fish portray some effect of microplastics on their endocrine systems, and consequently their estrogen receptors. Although cleaning microplastics might seem unpractical, scientists are actually able to utilize microbes that can degrade and digest the polymers in these microplastics. This process, called biodegradation, can be carried out by bacteria such as “Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Bacillus subtilis, etc.” that break down polyethylene terephthalate and polystyrene present in microplastics. Solutions to microplastics might seem endless, but it is only with involving “the general public, the socio-economic sectors, tourism and companies specializing in waste management,” to all take action, according to H.S. Auta from the University of Malaya.
Reducing the amount of microplastics in the oceans provides many benefits not only to the marine organisms such as fish, but also to humans. Although relatively small in size, many scientists are able to combat microplastics in the ocean through biodegradation as well as tracking down the original source and decreasing the production of potential plastic products. Additionally, the government has taken action by banning these microplastics from all products, such as facial cleansers and nail polish, in 2016. If we all take action and fund projects that can decrease the amount of microplastics in the oceans, our food chain will stay intact and the health of millions of marine organisms will be saved. Let us save the next generation from crisis.
<Kenny Um, Flintridge Prep, 10th Grade