Microplastics In The Seas Now Outnumber Stars In Our Galaxy

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Microplastics In The Seas Now Outnumber Stars In Our Galaxy
Photo – Fotolia.com © ead72

It’s time to take our oceans back: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) just launched an unprecedented global campaign aimed at ridding our oceans of plastic pollutants. They are urging everyone to stop the use of microplastics and to cut down on excessive consumption of single-use plastic. Through the Clean Seas campaign, UNEP is working with countries and businesses to undertake ambitious steps to tax or ban single-use plastic bags, eliminate microplastics from personal-care products, and greatly reduce disposable plastic items by 2022. [1] With up to 80 percent of ocean garbage made up of plastic, this campaign could not come any sooner. Ten countries have already pledged support, including Indonesia, Costa Rica and Uruguay. [2]

Just How Bad Is The Problem?

The estimate is that 51 trillion microplastic particles currently litter the seas. This amounts to 500 times more than the number of stars we have in the galaxy! And this is only bound to get worse, as the world’s demand for plastic continues to grow. In 2014, the world’s plastic production went over 311 million metric tons, a 4.0 percent increase from 2013’s total production. More than eight million metric tonnes of plastic find their way to the oceans every year, destroying fisheries, marine life and tourism. This amounts to $8 billion worth of damage to marine ecosystems. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans if current trends are not halted. [2]

Recent research also emphasized the issue of ever-increasing microplastics in marine environments. These small plastic pieces are now spread worldwide. They are littering both seas and lakes, sitting in the sediments of rivers and deltas, even swimming in the stomachs of various organisms. Microplastics have reached places as remote as a Mongolian mountain lake. On average, the world’s oceans currently have 63,320 microplastic particles per square kilometer. Marine organisms like seabirds, fish, and zooplankton are exposed to microplastics indirectly as part of a food chain and directly through ingestion of water. [3]

How Does This Affect You?

As Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of UNEP, aptly puts, “Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables.” [1] More than just destroying the environment you live in, plastic pollution can greatly affect your health.

Plastics release complex substances into the environment that pose serious risks to people’s health. One such substance called the bisephenol A (BPA) has been found to have endocrine-disrupting properties (as per a 2010 study in the Annual Review of Public Health). Tests have indicated possible health risks, including decreased male fertility, early sexual maturation and aggressive behavior. Owing to the omnipresence of plastics, detectable levels of BPA have been found in the urine of 95% of US adults. BPA’s polymer chains break down over time and may enter the human body through the fish we eat and the water we drink. [4]

Generally used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products, yet another substance from plastic called the di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), has been found to have adverse effects on health. A number of studies on rodents and humans have revealed correlations between DEHP exposure and adverse health effects, including insulin resistance, increased weight circumference, and changes to both female and male reproductive systems. [4]

Other toxins found in plastics are directly linked to childhood developmental issues, immune system problems, birth defects, and cancers. [5]

Among the actions that can be taken to address the problem are the following:
* Ban and find alternatives for worst offenders like polystyrene take-out containers and single-use-disposable shopping bags
* Spearhead or support technological innovation and the creation of biodegradable materials
* Foster cultural support for zero waste
* Promote methods for recycling and composting
* Invest in recycling and solid-waste infrastructure in the developing world
* Scale up stormwater management practices that capture plastics before they could reach the waters, and the like [6]
* Enforce legislation to prevent marine litter †
* Ban smoking on beaches. [1]

It is easy to see that key stakeholders, including those from the corporate world, have a big role to play in the grand scheme of things. And some top brands have already stepped up to the role. “Our new supply chain brings us one step closer to UNEP’s vision of Clean Seas by proving that recycled ocean plastic can be commercially reused,” proclaimed Piyush Bhargava, Dell Computers’ Vice President for Global Operations, as the technology company announced their use of recovered ocean plastic for product packaging. [1]

What Can You Do to Help?

While the government and corporations have crucial roles to play, everyday people need to step up to the plate as well. The oceans’ plastic pollution is a symptom of a throw-away society that each and everyone of us needs to own up to. As Adrian Grenier, founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation and film actor, puts it, “Whether we choose to use plastic bags at the grocery store or sip through a plastic straw, our seemingly small daily decisions to use plastics are having a dramatic effect on our oceans.” [1]

Here are just a few steps you can take to help:

* Bring your own cup so you won’t have to use the disposable ones
* Avoid cosmetics that use microbeads
* Refrain from intentional littering
* Help clean up beaches
* Bring reusable bags when shopping
* Avoid using plastic straws
* Avoid smoking on beaches [7]

It is high time we all take action. As Peter Thomas, the President of the UN General Assembly, puts it, “The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet, yet we are poisoning it with millions of tonnes of plastic every year.” [1]


[1] UN News Centre. ‘Turn the tide on plastic’ urges UN, as microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56229

[2] UNEP Environment. UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic. http://web.unep.org/unepmap/un-declares-war-ocean-plastic

[3] UN Environment. UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. http://web.unep.org/frontiers/sites/unep.org.frontiers/files/documents/unep_frontiers_2016.pdf

[4] Journalist’s Resource. Plastics, human health and environmental impacts: The road ahead. https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/pollution-environment/plastics-environmental-health-literature-review

[5] The Science Education Resource Centre at Carleton University (SERC). Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health. http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html

[6] Upstream Policy. The Solution to Plastic Pollution? https://upstreampolicy.org/blog/the-solution-to-plastic-pollution

[7] Clean Seas. Turn the Tide on Plastic. http://www.cleanseas.org/

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