Here’s a Roundup of Ocean Microplastics Research

A new study out of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in New York confirms the presence of the smallest microplastic particles that common tow net surveys have missed. And it also finds much higher quantities of larger pieces than were captured by the nets.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

June 24, 2024

5 Min Read
marina_larina/ Adobe Stock

Microplastics (particles less than 5 mm) have been found in oceans across the globe where marine life ingests and is harmed by these tiny fragments, which then make their way up the food chain.  But scientists are working to better understand just how much microplastics have flowed into oceans and to learn more about their potential impact on the environment and human health.

A new study out of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in New York confirms the presence of the smallest microplastic particles that common tow net surveys have missed. And it also finds much higher quantities of larger pieces than were captured by the nets.  

The scientists leveraged spectrometry and a microscope to analyze samples from the northeastern-coast of Venezuela (NECV), Pacific-Arctic Ocean (PAO), and Gulf Stream Current (GSC). Microplastics were found in all samples, and particles of 0.5 up to 200 um were five to six orders of magnitude greater than was detected in net tow surveys.

Most of these polymers were polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Nets, typically used in water samples, miss most microplastics because  the ultra-thin microfibers tend to pass through them. And some of it goes undetected because it sinks, explains nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences.

These particles are left behind when items like plastic packaging and water bottles break down. They shed from textiles during use and escape into waterways when clothes are washed. Microplastics come from worn tires. They result from spillage of feedstock during plastic production. And some are intentionally produced as “microbeads” in cosmetics and personal care products to function as an exfoliant, to extend products’ shelf life, and other purposes.

Of the roughly 8.3 billion tons of virgin plastics manufactured since the 1950s, about 5 billion of them have wound up as trash in the environment, according to a study in Advanced Functional Materials.

Other researchers report similar findings. And a tremendous volume of this persistent debris ends up in the ocean –between 4 and 12 million metric tons each year, according to the Oceanic Society. Surfrider estimates that at the current rate, the amount of plastic leaking into oceans is doubling every six years. And CSIRO, Australia’s science agency, estimates that up to 11 million tons of plastic trash now sits on the ocean floor. 

A 2004 study from the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute was reportedly the first to describe “microplastics” in a paper called  'Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?' The University’s exploration in this space is ongoing.

“Our work has clearly shown that microplastics are present in every sample of beach sand, whether it’s in Australia, Asia, Europe, North or South America. We’ve looked in the deep sea, in Arctic ice, in the gut of hundreds of fish from the English Channel, and we’ve found microplastic contamination everywhere,” says Richard Thompson who authored the paper and is director of Plymouth University’s Marine Institute.

There is much to learn yet as far as the extent of microplastics’ potential impact on ecosystems; which ecosystems; and the duration of effects that this pervasive waste is increasingly suspected to have.

Among some of the newest research, a paper published in Environmental Pollution concludes that coral reefs face high risk of becoming "microplastic sinks." It happens when they trap microplastics that gravitate toward them, exposing the reefs to toxic chemicals in the broken-down plastics, as well as threatening the marine life that feeds off the reefs.

One reef may house thousands of species, according to the Natural History Museum, potentially impacting entire ecosystems.

A new study in Environmental Research describes  microplastics’ impacts on more marine creatures, with the authors stating that implications of that impact eventually extend to human health. Microplastics reportedly affect microbial communities, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fauna present in marine environments, “disrupting the delicate balance of these ecosystems,” they say.

Some possible solutions offered up by the scientific community and environmental advocates include filtration devices, enzymatic degradation technologies, and alternatives to fossil-based plastics such as biodegradable plastics and bio-based materials. Though more research has uncovered that some bio-based plastics will contribute to microplastic accumulation and are carefully vetting to determine which of these emerging technologies are viable alternatives.

Scientific organizations, governments, as well as NGOs focused on ocean health call for prevention, mitigation, and public education to slow the tide of microplastics contamination.

And high on the list of proposed actions is to foster international collaboration to form universal policies designed to manage what is recognized as a global issue. This collaborative approach to plastics pollution, including marine litter and microplastics, is an ongoing focus at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) formed to develop a treaty to address plastic waste, with representatives from about 175 countries. With the fourth of five sessions having culminated in April 2024, the plastics industry and environmental advocates have not yet aligned on some measures and priorities but are reportedly getting closer to an agreement. The fifth and last planned session to refine and finalize the treaty is slated for November in the Republic of Korea.

In the meantime, individual coalitions have formed around the globe to try and tackle plastics on their own; including a few that are hyper focused on ocean plastics such as NextWave Plastics, cofounded by nonprofit Lonely Whale and Dell Technologies who convened a consortium of multi-national brands to create a global network of ocean-bound plastic supply chains.

Ocean Cleanup, an international environmental engineering organization based in the Netherlands develops technology to pull plastic pollution from oceans and to capture it in rivers before it reaches the ocean.  And International Coastal Cleanup is one of a few organizations that orchestrates large-scale, volunteer-driven beach and water cleanups worldwide.The general consensus is that taking on plastic pollution, with its reach across the globe, will take extensive partnership building; strong national and international policies; and an awakened awareness of the connection between human health, the health of planet and ocean.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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