Microplastics in Marine Life

Katie Keovongphet, Reporter


UN News states that over 51 trillion microplastic particles pollute the sea, and marine organisms are beginning to come across them more than ever before. With the rapidly growing amount of plastics, scientists are beginning to question the currently unknown harm they might bring to humans.

Plastic that’s seen floating on the surface of the sea accounts for 88 percent of the total plastic in the ocean, and many people believe that removing this plastic could be a solution to the microplastic pollution faced by marine life.

“Removing large plastic pollution found in the ocean could reduce the amount of microplastics that could form over time,” former NGHS AP Environmental Science teacher Jennifer Ly said. “But unfortunately, it would not address the microplastics that are currently circulating through the oceans’ ecosystem.”

In addition, on the West coast of Hawaii, microplastics are appearing in fish larvae. The baby fish are mistaking the microplastics for food.

“Microplastics come from plastic waste that was improperly disposed of which can find its way to the ocean. Over time, these plastics can break down into tiny particles,” Ly said. “These microplastics can affect marine life by making them think that they consumed food when in reality they did not. In addition, studies found that compounds found in plastics can act as endocrine disruptors which could negatively impact an organisms’ endocrine system.”

While plastic bottles and single-use plastics greatly contribute to coastal and marine pollution, other products people use could also bring harm to marine life. Biology teacher Nadelle Belizaire believes that people should be more focused on plastic found in products such as facial cleansers and makeup.

“I know, specifically, a lot of beauty products that are not natural exfoliators and they have microplastics in them, like glitter,” Belizaire said. “Our beauty products, the wash that you use on your face, the makeup that you put on your skin, the lotions that you use. That’s all microplastics.”

According to the European Chemicals Agency, 36,000 tons of microplastics are released into the environment from beauty products alone.

“When you’re washing [beauty products] off, where are you washing it to? Down the drain [and] into the oceans. And what lives in those? All the fish,” Belizaire said. “They have no choice but to eat [other organisms] that have those in them, and this is where bioaccumulation comes in. Bioaccumulation is just the increased levels of toxins the higher you go up the trophic levels in an ecosystem. It becomes more dangerous the higher you are in the trophic levels [because] those poisons and chemicals stay within your tissues and are really hard to get out.”

A few studies have been done on the impact of these microplastics, finding that they’re constantly being consumed on a daily basis by both humans and marine organisms.

“Microplastics may affect us in several ways. We could ingest them when we consume seafood and [they] act as endocrine disruptors for us as well,” Ly said. “Over time, microplastics could also reduce marine life populations through bioaccumulation and reduce the biodiversity of our oceans.”

Although the situation seems alarming, many people choose not to focus on the possible effects of these microplastics in sea-life and in humans.

“This added danger is going to affect so much more, and there’s going to be new things, new diseases probably popping up. People don’t care that much yet, but they will,” Belizaire said. “I think a lot of people who are in charge and making the decisions about our environment don’t care because they’re not going to be here when it really matters.”

As stated by The Guardian, one should typically avoid products that contain polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon.

“As a consumer, you have the biggest power with where you spend your money,” Belizaire said. “If you care enough, you’re going to look into companies that do the most to reduce the waste and to use products that aren’t harmful to the environment.”

Ly believes an effective way to take action is to be more aware of the amount of items people purchase and the packaging on those products. She states that it’s generally more than a consumer effort.

“Reducing the use of plastics needs to be a global effort with the corporation of industry that addresses the overuse of packaging, overproduction, and overconsumption of products,” Ly said. “To reduce our plastic use and address other environmental issues such as our carbon footprint, consumers could start by being more conscious when they purchase products. For example, consumers could make an effort to not purchase products they don’t actually need or products that use too much plastic packaging (especially at grocery stores).”

While this may seem like a lot of work, there are plenty of simple ways to prevent further plastic pollution.

“We as consumers could reduce our plastic use when we go grocery shopping by buying products in bulk and using our own containers or reusable bags,” Ly said. “We could also find ways to reuse the plastic containers our products come in.”

As plastic pollution continues to affect the oceans, it’s important for everyday consumers to try and prevent more pollution from reaching the seas. Belizaire ultimately believes it begins with our conscious decisions.

“To me, a grassroots effort is the best thing to do to raise awareness,” Belizaire said. “I think it just takes your conscious decisions, spreading your conscious decisions and helping other people be aware. That makes the most impact no matter what.”