The Threat of Microplastics

By Lorenzo Brown 

A common misconception is that plastics eventually break down. The truth is that plastic pollution doesn’t disappear; it just breaks into smaller pieces that continue to pollute the water forever. Microplastic pollution is one of the most significant threats currently facing the ocean. As of 2022, there are between 50 and 75 trillion microplastics in the ocean; that’s roughly ten thousand pieces of trash per person in the world. 

Microplastics are defined as plastics that are five millimeters in diameter or less, which can be items the size of a penny or smaller. They can come from common items such as clothing fibers, toothbrushes, and utensils. Large pieces of plastic that pollute the ocean ultimately break apart and become the microplastics of the future. According to Nathalie Brundell,  11% of all plastics in the ocean are microplastics, and that percentage continues to increase.

Microplastics on a beach in Sri Lanka. Photo by Sören Funk on Unsplash.

Microplastics damage marine life in many ways. When an animal ingests microplastics that they mistake for food, the microplastics go into the animal’s intestines and clog up its digestive system. This prevents the animal’s organs from functioning properly, which can lead to death. 

Additionally, as bigger species consume smaller organisms that have already ingested microplastics, these plastics make their way up the food chain. This leads to a build up of plastics, as well as the toxins they absorb, in larger organisms. This has consequences for humans as well as marine life. As Brundell explains, “Microplastics actually concentrate and absorb other toxins in the oceans. Along with the plastic-polluted fish, these toxins end up on your dinner plate.” 

Since fibers from plastic-based materials such as polyester account for 35% of ocean microplastics, one thing that individuals can do to help prevent the spread of microplastics is to adopt eco-friendly laundry habits. This includes washing clothes less frequently and on gentle cycles to prevent microfibers from shedding. It is also possible to get washing machine filters that trap microfibers. Microplastic pollution will be difficult to solve, so every person’s effort matters.

Lorenzo is a sophomore at Hyla High School on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.

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