Microplastic Pollution: A Macro problem

Microplastic Pollution: A Macro problem

PhD student Nia Jones discusses her research into microplastics, shedding light on the relationship between plastic pollution and climate change as symptoms of the same issues, capitalism and the overconsumption of resources.

A few years ago, I found out that by 2050 the weight of plastic pollution would outweigh all the fish in our ocean. I was using single use plastic straws and disposable coffee cups most days on the way into University, only to find out these were mostly unrecyclable. It was around this time about three years ago that I became really invested in our plastic pollution problem, and determined to be a part of the solution. As an environmental sciences undergraduate at the time, I had enough tools and time at my disposal to absorb as much information and research as possible around this issue. I saw plastic pollution and its possible effects on the environment as a perfect example of how our collective actions were causing much wider impacts on the environment than most of us could comprehend. 

After a few years of convincing friends to ditch single use straws and starting conversations around plastic pollution with my local community, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into the issue.

I began my PhD looking into the mechanics of microplastic dispersal last October, hoping to get a better insight into where microplastic comes from and where it goes. While the first year has been anything but expected with the emergence of Covid-19 and having to research from home  half the time, I have realised that solving the plastic pollution crisis is more than just single use straw bans and reusable coffee cup awareness campaigns. The problem is also a socio-economic one with links which span most industries and nations with serious environmental and social consequences if it goes unsolved.  

To give you a brief, background history into the plastics world, microplastics are small particles of plastic less than 5 mm in size, either from the raw production of plastic or the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic in the environment. The first plastic made from synthetic components was Bakelite, developed in the early 20th century. During that time plastic was hailed as the material which would save the world. It was made to last while being lighter and cheaper than any other material at the time, placing itself in the perfect position to solve a growing crisis of deforestation. Because of these properties, plastic has revolutionised so many industries, including aviation, shipping and food production, all of which has made the world that much more connected. 

Despite the benefits that we have reaped from the invention of plastic, developments in the material throughout the 20th century caused a boom in the industry, especially packaging, leading to the popularisation of ‘single use plastic’. At the time, plastic seemed to solve all the inconveniences of the home, as outlined in Life magazine’s lead image in 1955. It celebrated single use plastic as the beginning of ‘Throwaway Living’ and the ‘saviour of the american housewife’. It was this convenience and the growing ease of access to plastics which led to the boom in plastic production, exponentially growing from the mid-20th century well into the 21st century until today. The value of the industry was even referenced in the Academy Award winning The Graduate’ where Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin is advised into the plastics industry as “there’s a great future in plastics”. 

Global plastics production has continually increased from 1950 to present day, reaching over 350 million metric tonnes per year towards the end of the 2010s. Only two times in history has the world seen a significant reduction in plastic pollution. These times were during the serious economic downturns of the 1970s oil crisis and more recently, the 2008 global credit crunch. No other event in recent history, despite all the plastic pollution awareness campaigns, has significantly reduced the ever-growing amount of plastic being produced. It, of course, remains to be seen whether the economic impacts of Covid-19 will affect the levels of global plastic production. 

Once plastic is in the environment, whether through domestic or industrial sources, it will be weakened and broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, creating millions of pieces of microplastic. When it reaches microscopic form, it becomes impossible to say for certain where that piece of microplastic has come from, and due to its size, tracking it in the ocean becomes very difficult. This is where researchers, like myself, come in who are trying to use numerical ocean models to recreate different scenarios of microplastic input into the ocean to see where hotspots of accumulation could be, or which parts of our coast and open ocean are most at risk to the ill effects of microplastics.

Risks of microplastics to our natural environment and various populations are largely unknown at the minute with it being an emerging field of research. However, microplastics usually have a large surface area compared to its mass and due to being made from plastic it has a very absorbent surface when in the environment. This allows the microplastic to attract and absorb different substances and toxins onto its surface, in some cases the concentrations of toxins can be thousands of times higher on the microplastic than in the surrounding water column and may allow viruses and bacteria to live longer. Because of this behaviour, microplastic can exacerbate current pollution problems, therefore a robust knowledge of the level of microplastic in local waters to assess the impact of different events is necessary, but unfortunately not very common. 

With the increasing levels of plastic production and knowledge of its impacts on our environment it can seem an insurmountable challenge to conquer. However, take a step back and you’ll begin to see the links between industries and the main perpetrators of this issue. Plastic is mainly made up of fossil fuels. 4% of global fossil fuels are used for plastic production – not accounting for shipping and transport. Despite being marketed as two separate environment problems, plastic pollution and climate change are symptoms of the same issue. The existence of a linear economy where over-consumption of limited resources is the norm, is fuelling our over-reliance on single use plastic, as well as the climate and ecological crises. Despite the opinion of a few, this is not a problem of less economically developed countries with growing populations.

Data source: (Jambeck et al. 2015)

Per capita, America and Europe often top the list of plastic waste generation per person. Businesses founded and based in the West are often the culprits of plastic waste found in the remotest seas in the world, and capitalist structures within our societies are upholding the idea that “more is better”. Getting distracted by a “them not us” narrative peddled by the very industries and governments responsible for this problem, will only make the problem worse. 

This is where individual and community action can come in. Sacrificing your share of single use plastic straws, or coffee cups may not make a dent in the emissions of plastic into our ocean given the current levels of production. But, by decreasing demand on a community level and changing the way we think about consuming goods will make things  all too clear to ‘Big Oil’ and the plastics industry. Working together for a cleaner community while getting local businesses on board will not only help the local economy, but also send a message that the people don’t want plastic, they want sustainable practices. 

Plastic pollution, and subsequent microplastic pollution, is a unique contaminant in that it is mostly visible and is directly related to the general public’s lifestyle. Other pollutants, like CO2, oil, or mercury for example are slightly more removed from a usual person’s consciousness, making the connection between reduction in consumption and reduction in environmental impact a harder one to make. But if we continue to take enough of a step back and start to see the wider picture of the environmental issue at hand and how it may be caused, we may get to the solution a lot sooner than we think. 

As a community, and a wider society, we must begin to demand concrete action from governments and industries which will lead to real reductions in the amount of plastic we’re producing and therefore lessen the pressure on our oceans and wider environment.

 

Nia Jones is a PhD Student at the School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University, funded by the Envision Doctoral Training Programme researching into the dispersal of microplastic into the marine environment.