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October 2017 − Exploring Life
By the year 2050, more plastic garbage than fish will swim in the world’s oceans – if industry and society are not going to change their ways. Herein, we will explore the origins of microplastic pollution and its consequences.
A belly full of plastic took the life of a six meter long whale. It beached on the coast of Norway and died. The autopsy revealed more than 30 plastic bags and other plastic items in its stomach. According to estimates by the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND), up to 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die every year. They mistake the plastic waste for food and subsequently starve with a full stomach, as their digestive system becomes blocked. While the animals starve, the oceans too are threatened with suffocation due to microplastics. Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Dutch nonprofit organization Plastic Soup Foundation explains: “Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but it does fall apart into ever smaller pieces. The number of microplastics increases exponentially, even if we succeed in stopping the inflow of plastic waste into the oceans.”
Even today the oceans already harbor at least 150 million tons of plastic garbage. These are subject to degradation by the sun, wind and waves, only to be deposited on the ocean floor as "secondary microplastics" back in their original state as plastic pellets. According to the British Ellen MacArthur Foundation, each year a minimum of eight million additional tons of plastic end up in the oceans; and on top of that, according to data provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), 2.5 million tons of microplastics enter the oceans. This includes “primary microplastics” which, in the form of plastic pellets, are further processed by industry to become packaging material, cosmetic products or clothes. These particles, which are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter even on land, cannot be filtered out by sewage treatment plants. A current IUCN study shows: tiny plastic particles from synthetic clothing that are released during the laundering process, as well as abrasion from tires, pollute the oceans to an extent not recognized previously.
Accumulation of microplastics in the food chain cannot be ruled out either. Nadja Ziebarth, Head of the BUND Office for Ocean Protection, says: “A large number of studies have shown that microplastics are in fact taken up by zooplankton that constitute the food of fish and mammals. This does not necessarily mean, however, that it also reaches man, as stomachs of the animals are generally removed prior to human consumption. The notable exceptions: mussels and shrimp. A team of researchers at the Laboratory for Environmental Toxicology of the University of Ghent in Belgium found plastic particles in the tissue of mussels in the North Sea. According to the researchers, whoever consumes a meal that contains 300 grams of mussels will also swallow 300 plastic particles. The exact ways in which microplastics may be transferred to humans and the potential impact of toxins, however, is not clear at this time.
Environmentally friendly filter systems
In order to tackle the problem, Ziebarth considers a general reduction in plastic to be pivotal. On a societal level, this would mean rethinking our consumption as well as acting in a more environmentally friendly manner. Companies should manufacture clothes, cosmetics and tires in such a way that they will shed fewer plastic particles. “Synthetic fibers from clothes comprise a large proportion of the pollution caused by microplastics. Filter systems in washing machines would be a good countermeasure. But also plastic particles from tire abrasion and road markings are carried directly into the ocean by rain water, without filtration. Retaining basins or filter systems for sewage drains may be an option”, says Ziebarth. A special system for the filtration of microplastics is already in the testing phase at the Technical University in Berlin. The cartridge can be suspended under a manhole cover and is expected to catch up to 95 percent of particles.
If the pollution continues on the same trajectory, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by the year 2050. The ball is now in the courts of politicians and the business world alike. Ziebarth states: “They have the option of approaching the problem on a regulatory level and to use innovative technologies in order to address the sources and points of entry.”
per square meter of water surface were measured by the scientists on the research vessel TARA in the Barents Sea and off the coast of Greenland.
This is roughly a third more than the amount found in the notorious large garbage islands in the subtropical regions of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The Arctic is the end of the line for the global ocean currents that convey heat – and plastic.
© Alina Sawallisch