As summer draws to a close in the northern hemisphere, we should ask ourselves a question–besides the white sands and the blue sea, what else are we leaving behind? On this month we mark International Coastal Cleanup Day with a call to action—we should be mindful of how much the ocean means to us and of the alarming rise in the number of tiny particles that are creating one of the biggest environmental problems ever faced by our marine ecosystems at global level: microplastics pollution.
Microplastics are defined as solid, synthetic, water-insoluble particles less than 5 mm long with a very low capacity to degrade. These long-lasting fragments are now ubiquitous in our lives—besides polluting our marine and terrestrial ecosystems, they have found their way into our food chain and our water pipes, with recent studies showing presence of microplastics in 80 percent of drinking water samples from all over the world.
This is why the World Health Organization considers them an emerging risk. Further complicating matters, these tiny particles act as magnets, absorbing toxic substances and sometimes disease-carrying organisms.
But what is the origin of these particles? And more importantly—how do they end up in our oceans?
There are several different sources of microplastics. One of them is the fragmentation and degradation of bigger pieces of plastic. But their main sources are everyday products and activities such as the following:
- Plastic microfibers (microbeads) used in cosmetic and personal hygiene products, including exfoliating agents, toothpaste and cleaning supplies.
- Tire wear.
- Laundering of clothing containing synthetic fibers, since 60 percent of the textile production derives from plastic materials such as polyester and elastane.
This huge amount of plastic particles travels from our sewers to the sanitation networks, and from there straight to our rivers, which pour them into our marine ecosystems.
Once they get into the oceans, these particles and their associated toxics are swallowed by different species, triggering a chain that alters the ecosystem and fauna dynamics. They eventually make it to our dinner table in the form of seafood. According to studies recently published by the IUCN, between 0.8 and 2.5 million tons of particles are released every year.
So what can we do?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to retrieve this waste from our oceans, mainly because its density and chemical composition keep it beneath the surface. In addition, the action of microorganisms may make it sink to the ocean floor, making recovery even harder.
In this scenario, one of the most effective ways to tackle the problem is for us to reduce the use of plastic and for government agencies to tighten up recycling regulations. Some countries (USA, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and France) already ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.
It is also necessary to raise collective awareness so that both the public and private sector get more involved and take part in research and the search of new technologies to find products with less environmental impact.
As consumers, we have the option to choose more sustainable products. For example, we can say no to plastic packaged products, bottled water, and single-use plastic items such as straws, cups and cutlery, avoid using microbeads in cosmetics, and switch to natural fiber clothing.
Water and the oceans are essential for the survival of most species on the planet. Microplastics are one of their biggest threats, and humans can and should play a key role in this regard.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) applies in its operations the Disaster Risk Management Policy (OP-704), which among other principles, includes the proper development, use and disposal of water resources in Latin American and Caribbean countries.