Whenever we talk about plastic pollution in the ocean, most people will typically think of massive ocean garbage patches filled with plastic bags, bottles, straws, and other discarded single-use items that are carelessly disposed of and eventually wind up in our water systems.
But there is an even bigger and more difficult problem that is plaguing not only our oceans but our health as well: microplastics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are any piece of plastic less than 5mm in diameter, and our oceans are currently teeming with them.
They come from a variety of sources. Many come from larger pieces of plastic that have broken down due to environmental damage—still more come in the form of "microbeads" that are included in exfoliating face washes and other household products, which are then flushed down the drain.
Scientists currently estimate there to be over 14 million tons of microplastics covering our ocean floor, with countless more tons drifting through the currents.
Microplastics become fish food, then human food.
As microplastics drift through the oceans, millions of fish mistake these small floating particles for algae, plankton, and other food sources.
Not only do wildlife gain no nutritional value from ingesting these particles, but the rough materials can also wreak havoc on their internal systems, leading to health problems and, often, death.
Those that do survive their diet of plant matter with a microplastic side dish wind up in the fishing nets of commercial fishermen. Researchers have found that over 386 marine fish species are known to consume plastic, and of those, 210 are considered “commercially important,” meaning those are species of fish that are fished for purposes like human and animal consumption.
Initially, there was little concern for this affecting humans, as undigestible plastics in a fish’s stomach would be removed before a filet hits our dinner plate. But recently, researchers have found evidence of even smaller plastic particles, dubbed “nanoplastics,” migrating from fish’s stomachs and into their muscles, which is the part consumed by humans.
So, a discarded piece of plastic, whether it be a face wash microbead or a tiny chunk of a plastic water bottle, has the potential to travel all the way from our ocean and onto our dinner plate through the food we eat.
Not only that, plastics and microplastics are impacting wildlife and causing animals from fish to seabirds and even whales and dolphins to suffer and eventually die, disrupting the food chain and reshaping the ecology of our planet.
How can we eliminate microplastics in our oceans?
There are several routes we can choose to eliminate microplastics from our oceans. The first is to keep all plastics out of our water systems. By eliminating plastic waste in our water systems, we eliminate its ability to "shed" microplastics as it breaks down due to harsh environmental conditions such as exposure to sunlight, saltwater, and wind.
The second is to ban products containing plastic “microbeads.” These products release millions of microplastics into our water system daily, and they find their way directly to the ocean and into the diets of sea life or at rest across the entire ocean floor.
If you’re looking for an exfoliating face wash, try one with biodegradable exfoliants like coffee, ground almonds, or other organic compounds.
The third is to make sustainable choices when it comes to your everyday purchases. Ditch plastic bags in favor of reusable tote bags. Carry a reusable water bottle or tumbler instead of grabbing a convenient plastic water bottle when out and about. If you’re ordering takeout, skip the plastic utensils and opt for using metal or bamboo cutlery that won’t end up directly in the garbage after you chow down on the chow mien.
Microplastics are a huge problem, and it will take personal, governmental, and private corporations all working together to eliminate them from our oceans. But by buying sustainably and supporting companies that are taking drastic action to eliminate plastic waste, you can do your part towards helping us change for the better.
You can help stop plastic pollution in our oceans by purchasing products from companies dedicated to producing plastic-free, sustainable products. RIO not only helps you stock up on sustainable goods but is also dedicated to using the proceeds to rid our oceans of plastic once and for all.