Microplastics: New Threat to Our Aquatic Ecosystem

The use of plastics in our daily lives has grown drastically over the last several decades. It is difficult for us to function without using plastics in some form. Think about our annual use of nearly 300 million metric tons, with a significant percentage (up to 40 percent) used as packaging materials that are typically used once and discarded.

It might surprise some people that as much as 10 percent of the plastic that is not recycled winds up in our marine and fresh water environments. There are vast areas of our oceans where plastic debris is concentrated in gyres where the debris is broken down, by abrasive wave action and embrittlement caused by light in the UV range, into particles that measure less than 5 mm. In a recent article published in Science magazine, Professors Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association and Richard C. Thompson of Plymouth University in the United Kingdom reported that they have measured plastic particles as small as 20 micrometers and have suggested that these particles concentrate toxic refractory organics on their surfaces that can be released upon digestion by fish and wildlife.

Another source of plastics in our water is microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic that are used in consumer goods, in particular, as exfoliating agents in personal care products. Microbeads are generally polyethylene micrcospheres that are available in particle sizes from 0.01 to 1 mm. They are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants so they end up in our lakes and waterways. Microbeads account for almost 90 percent of the microplastics found in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes, in turn, account for almost 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

We should be pleased with the recommendation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to add microbeads and microplastics to the list of Great Lakes contaminants. It is recognized that the tiny particle sizes associated with these contaminants result in passage through municipal wastewater treatment facilities, causing a significant threat to fish and bird populations. Clearly more research is required to determine the potential environmental and human health impacts of the microplastics.

But, what can you and I do to help reduce this threat? First, we can avoid the purchase of consumer products such as shampoos, facial washes and cosmetics that use microbeads. Second, we can be more diligent in recycling plastic products and more careful about what we discharge to our municipal wastewater treatment facilities.

New York state, along with California and Ohio, has already begun the debate as to whether legislation is required to mitigate the environmental threat being created by microplastics. The state of Illinois has already passed legislation banning the use of microbeads in consumer products by 2018.

Remember that without water, our Earth cannot sustain life. It's worth the trouble to protect this precious resource.