Microplastics In Our Oceans
Little debris, a big problem
Plastic debris can come in all shapes and sizes, but those that are less than five millimeters in length are called “microplastics.”
Microplastics often find their way into the ocean and onto the beach. There are both primary and secondary forms of microplastic.
Primary Microplastic comes from microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets.
Secondary microplastics are those that are created by the degradation of larger plastic materials.
Since plastic does not readily break down, plastic materials persist in the environment for thousands of years. Additionally, ingested microplastics are difficult or impossible to process, and eating plastics can cause starvation in animals that cannot pass the materials through their digestive system.
Microplastics, or tiny plastic particles, are ubiquitous pollutants found almost everywhere on earth. Scientists have detected microplastics near the peak of Mount Everest, in the Mariana Trench, and even in baby poop. But researchers have now found a new vessel for microplastics: human blood.
"OUT OF SIGHT OUT OF MIND"
Coastal areas and island nations are particularly exposed to the challenges that come from marine debris. Ocean circulation systems create gyres that collect and concentrate marine debris.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a well-known example of a collection of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaiʻi and California.
What and Where Are Garbage Patches?
Garbage patches are large areas of the ocean where litter, fishing gear, and other debris - known as marine debris - collects. They are formed by rotating ocean currents called “gyres.”
You can think of them as big whirlpools that pull objects in. The gyres pull debris into one location, often the gyre’s center, forming “patches.”
Marine Debris in Hawai'i
The Hawaiian Island chain sits in the center of the North Pacific Gyre and acts as a fine-toothed comb, sifting out debris as it cycles through.
Most of the waters and coastlines of Hawaii are plagued by marine debris and microplastic.
HONOLULU— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found the waters around Hawaii’s Kamilo Beach and Tern Island to be impaired by plastic pollution and ordered state officials to take corrective actions under the Clean Water Act.
Plastic pollution has been accumulating in the oceans for decades and is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.
Much of that plastic comes from Asian countries that process American plastic waste. But surveys have found a significant percentage of the plastics contaminating Hawaii’s waters originate within the state.
YOU CAN BE THE CHANGE!
7 Solutions To Ocean Plastic Pollution
1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics
Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded.
The best way to do this is by a) refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need (e.g. straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers), and b) purchasing, and carrying with you, reusable versions of those products, including reusable grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups, and dry cleaning garment bags. And when you refuse single-use plastic items, help businesses by letting them know that you would like them to offer alternatives.
2. Support Legislation to Curb Plastic Production and Waste
We also need legislation that reduces plastic production, improves waste management, and makes plastic producers responsible for the waste they generate. There are a variety of ways that you can support local, national, and international legislation that provide critical solutions to reduce plastic pollution. One such effort in the United States is the 2021 Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a comprehensive federal bill that aims to address the plastic pollution crisis, and there are a number of state level initiatives to introduce extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation that makes plastic producers and distributors responsible for their products and packaging at the end of life.
At the international level, hundreds of organizations and businesses are calling on the United Nations to enact a global plastics treaty that would set global rules and regulations that would reduce plastic pollution. And legislation that limits, taxes, or bans unnecessary single use plastic items, such as plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles, has been successfully enacted in many places globally, and you can support the adoption of such policies in your community too. Here is a comprehensive resource and toolkit on legislative approaches to limiting plastic bags, foodware, microplastics, and more.
3. Recycle Properly
Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation. If you need help finding a place to recycle plastic waste near you, check Earth911’s recycling directory.
It’s also important to check with your local recycling center about the types of plastic they accept.
4. Participate In (or Organize) a Beach or River Cleanup
Help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from getting there in the first place by participating in, or organizing a cleanup of your local beach or waterway.
5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic particles, called “microbeads,” have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution in recent years. Microbeads are found in some face scrubs, toothpastes, and bodywashes, and they readily enter our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems, and affect hundreds of marine species. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads by looking for “polythelene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (find a list of products containing microbeads here).
6. Spread the Word
Stay informed on issues related to plastic pollution and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution, or host a viewing party for one of the many plastic pollution focused documentaries, like A Plastic Ocean, Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic, Bag It, Addicted to Plastic, Plasticized, or Garbage Island.
7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution
There are many non-profit organizations working to reduce and eliminate ocean plastic pollution in a variety of different ways, including Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, and Surfrider Foundation, Seed. world and others. These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!