What fleece jackets and face wash have in common
Contrary to much of the world’s passive appeal, plastic in the water is nothing new. “Altogether, 288 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide in 2012. According to calculations, 28 million tons… ended up in the ocean,” (phys.org). That’s your plastic bags, plastic bins, those rings that hold 6-packs of bottles together – the occasional toilet seat caught on a fishing line – literally tons of stuff. But lately something perhaps more sinister is creeping into our waters: Microplastics. Those little beads in your facewash that massage and exfoliate? Microplastics. Those fibers that you find in your washing machine after you run the carpet, your fleece jacket, athletic apparel, anything made of synthetic materials? Microplastics. But they are smaller. One might say. They can’t wrap around a sea turtle causing deformities and the whole lot. That’s true. Leave it to the 6-pack rings. But microplastics have trouble all their own.
I’ll have the salad
Research on certain species of marine life discovered that microplastics can enter the circulatory system and just camp out for up to 2 days, causing all sorts of mayhem. “The level of concentration was surprising: [scientists] found as many as 111 microscopic pieces of plastic in a single fish. Scientists worry that microplastics might clog the digestive systems of fish and make them feel full, so they end up starving,” (mprnews.org). So 1) microplastics can get in the bloodstream and 2) fooled fish end up dead. Not a direct human problem, right? Well… “plastics are composed of chemical compounds. Thus far, very little is known about the interaction between plastics and environmentally hazardous substances in marine settings and how plastics may affect the toxicity of these substances… scientists are especially interested in exploring whether microplastics rise up the food chain… these findings will provide the grounds for determining whether the interactions between plastics and sea animals pose a previously unknown risk to seafood as a safe source of nutrition,” (phys.org). Plastic crusted grouper anyone?
Moving the problem might not mean fixing, but it’s a start, maybe
The “giant larvacean” is a translucent, tadpole-esque sea creature, about 4 inches long, that also happens to eat microplastics. “They live far below the ocean surface, capturing food in sticky mucus filters that can be over three feet across. These filters (which are called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them) trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which are then eaten by the larvacean. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor,” (sciencedaily.com). Once ingested, the microplastics are also discarded to the seafloor via larvacean fecal pellets. How does this play into other marine life in the long term? What happens next? Does it even help? It may be too early to tell. All that is known for certain is, “microplastics that reach the deep seafloor don’t just disappear. Many are likely to be ingested by deep seafloor animals that depend on cast-off larvacean houses as an important source of food,” (sciencedaily.com). And on and on it goes.
What you can do at this very moment
This is happening not only in oceans, but in lakes close to home as well. And lakes don’t have deep seafloors or giant larvaceans. “What scientists say might be more effective — and less expensive — is to figure out how to keep plastic out of the wastewater stream in the first place,” (mprnews.org). Wenck is keen on the restoration, protection, and improvement of water resources all over the globe. Here are some action items you can incorporate in everyday life to help provide a clean, sustainable future:
- Don’t use as much (or cut out entirely?) one-time-only bags, water bottles, straws, coffee cups, eating utensils, etc. Reusable versions of all these items are readily available. Invest in some.
- Try to find cosmetic products that use more environmentally friendly means. Instead of microbeads, try salts or oatmeal.
- Avoid synthetic fibers. Get clothes made of natural materials.
- If you have synthetic fiber clothing, such as a fleece jacket, don’t wash it as often.
- If at this point you don’t recycle, I don’t think reading this will convince you. But it’s worth a shot. Please recycle? And cut slits in those 6-pack rings to save the sea turtles while you’re at it.