As a planet we are currently facing a number of environmental problems. Air pollution, resource depletion and environmental degradation are real issues that we can see the effects of every day from the smog in the air to the trash on the ground. And although we will not see all the harm we’ve already caused for years, if we begin to take the right steps now, it may be possible to reverse the damage. However, there is one problem that stands out from the rest due to the fact that, as of yet, we don’t have a solution for it: the accumulation of microplastics in the ocean.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic that measure less than 5 mm (as defined by NOAA). They can occur as a result of the breaking down of larger plastic over time, but are also sometimes added to certain products as microbeads, which are easily able to pass through water filtration systems and into the ocean. Microbeads have been in use since as early as the 1960s and have been increasingly replaced natural ingredients in items like toothpaste and hand soaps, leading to more and more microplastics in the ocean.

As these plastics float in the water, they amass persistent organic pollutants or POPs. POPs are human-made chemicals that don’t easily decompose in the environment. Instead, they end up getting eaten by marine life, where they collect in the organism’s fatty tissues. Because of their unnatural chemical composition, POPs can cause potentially serious health effects in both wildlife and humans, such as cancer, malformation, decrease in the immune response, and impaired reproductive ability.

Plastic is entering our oceans at a growing rate, and more than half is single-use. In some places, researchers have found the amount of microplasitcs to be six times higher than that of the comparably sized micro organism, zooplankton. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut solution to removing it from our oceans. The tiny size of these plastics makes them impossible to remove from the ocean without also removing the wide array of micro organisms that are crucial to the function of the ocean’s ecosystem. We need to effectively eliminate our use of plastic products and come up with a way to remove what remains, because we rely on our ocean, and we need it to be clean.

C. McLaughlin

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