With over 8 million tons of plastic ending up in our oceans annually, the waterways of the world are facing a major crisis. To see how best to manage the problem from its source, we decided to investigate the top 7 causes of microplastic pollution in the oceans. Sadly, human activities are progressively contributing to making the world’s oceans a dumpsite of plastics and microplastics.
Microplastics come about either through land-based activities or ocean-based activities. Ocean-based activities contribute about 2% of the volume of microplastics, for instance, fishing activities.
The bulk of microplastic pollution in the ocean (98%) arise from land-based activities. Microplastics from land-based activities are carried to the ocean through:
- Road run-off when it rains
- Wastewater treatment systems
We decided to do a little research just to find out what’s known about the sources of ocean microplastics. The idea is that once we see the source of the microplastics, then it is possible to seek preventive, alternative, and cleanup measures.
Top 7 Sources of Microplastic pollution in Oceans.
According to an analysis done by Statista on data from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the Top 7 sources of microplastics are as follows:
1. Synthetic Textiles
The fashion industry is the largest contributor to ocean microplastic. Every time we launder clothing items that are partially or fully synthetic, fibers from the synthetic fibers wear off. This includes polyesters, elastane, acrylics, and the like. They then get washed into waterways and the ocean. Because the fibers are so small, they often get ingested by marine life and passed on through the food chain. [I explored this topic in-depth in my post on Sustainable Fashion: The Whys and Hows.]
2. Car Tyres
There are approximately 1.4 billion cars on the roads over the world today. This number is expected to reach 2 billion by 2035. Car tires are made from synthetic rubber. Every time a car is driven, its tires wear out the treads on them due to friction on the road and from the brakes.
Tread wear is nothing but tiny pieces of the tire being worn off the tires of a car, forming dust or flakes. The tire dust is wind-blown or washed away by rain into waterways and rivers, eventually ending up in the ocean as microplastics.
3. City Dust
City Dust is a generic name given by environmental researchers and analysts. It is used to collectively describe particles created from use and abrasion of objects, buildings, industrial activities, and intentional pouring of detergents. Examples include particles from wear/tear of synthetic shoes, washing of synthetic cooking utensils, erosion from building surface coatings, and much more.
4. Road Markings
These are usually done with synthetic paints or thermoplastics. The markings wear off over time due to weathering or abrasion by vehicles and then get blown by the wind or washed away by rain into waterways. With infrastructure expansion across cities, the amount of microplastics from road markings is expected to rise.
5. Marine Coatings
Anti-corrosive paints, protective coatings are used on marine vessels (ships, boats, etc.) to make them withstand wear and tear while at sea. These substances are synthetic and erode over time and use, washing into the ocean.
6. Personal Care Products
Larger plastic debris from personal care products includes toothbrushes, toothpaste, makeup, bottles of body lotion, shampoo, and the like. However, microplastics in personal care products are in the form of microbeads. [Take a look at our post on Zero Waste Bathroom & Beauty Products, which explores this deeper.]
Microbeads are small round pieces of plastic deliberately added to cosmetics, facial scrubs, and body scrubs. Because they are so small (less than 5mm), they wash off into sewer systems and are released into waterways or water treatment systems. Since they can’t be filtered out in wastewater treatment facilities, they then get carried into the ocean.
7. Plastic Pellets
Plastic is initially in the form of pellets before it’s made into final products. Occasional spillage of the pellets may happen while they are being transported for processing. Spillage of pellets also occurs during the production or recycling process of converting them into plastic products. Such pellets have been found in samples of ocean water that have been analyzed.
Microplastic Pollution – The Effects on Animals & Marine Ecosystems
Since microplastics are not easily visible to human eyes, their impact on marine organisms could be more far-reaching than has been measured to date. The microplastics that are lighter than seawater tend to float on the sea, while the heavier ones sink to the ocean floor.
Microplastics are not biodegradable, so they remain in the environment, creating what has become known as ‘Plastic Soup’ in the ocean.
Ocean plastic pollution is not just endangering marine ecosystems, but it’s also killing species and threatening entire food chains in the process.
Apart from getting trapped, maimed, or killed by larger plastic debris, marine species eat some of the plastic pieces, confusing them for food. In many cases, fish and birds have been found with small pieces of plastic inside their digestive tracts.
During Ben Lecomte’s Vortex Swim through the North Pacific Garbage Patch in 2019, he had an encounter with an albatross that thought a floating piece of plastic was food.
When Ben tried to chase the bird and retrieve the debris, the bird was reluctant to leave what it considered a tasty morsel. Watch Ben’s experience here.
The Extent of the Effect of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life
Now, if that’s what happens with visible plastic debris in the ocean, can you imagine the extent of effects to marine animals that encounter the almost invisible microplastics?
Marine animals tend to ingest or absorb these microplastics, endangering their entire food chain because of the potential toxicity of the plastic to their internal systems. And who’s at the top of the food chain? You and me.
Although there’s still a lot of ongoing research that is yet to establish the full magnitude of the effects of microplastic pollution on marine species, I think there’s cause for all of us to be concerned. I don’t know about you, but the mere thought of eating fish that’s been swallowing polyester fibers or microbeads half its life makes me shiver with apprehension. And what about our drinking water? Are our water supplies safe from microplastic contamination?
Microplastic Pollution – How You can Help:
As consumers of synthetic products, we need to learn as much as possible about the threat posed by microplastic pollution. We need to begin taking decisive steps towards changing our consumer behavior. We (individually and collectively) also need to step up pressure on manufacturers to transform production systems, so that we see a transition away from harmful synthetics.
There’s so much we can do to save our oceans. Our buying behavior can create demand for natural, sustainable products that have less impact on the environment. We need to opt for plastic-free products, or those made from compostable materials because these are what will reduce microplastic pollution in our oceans. Since this is something we are passionate about, we’ve shared a lot more in some of our other posts. You may also enjoy reading these related articles:
- Top 5 Ocean-Friendly Skincare Products
- Sustainable Fashion: The Whys & Hows
- Ocean Pollution & Acidification-10 Ways to Help
- Plastic Free Oral Care (Brushing Consciously)
- Life in a Plastic-Free Ocean
- Zero Waste Bathroom & Beauty Products
Share your thoughts on microplastic pollution with us: We would love to hear from you.
Have you started living with minimal plastic? Are you involved in any ocean conservation activities? We would love to know: Drop us a line on any of our Social Media handles and share your thoughts and experiences with us.
Let’s Do This Together!