Microplastics in No Small Supply

by GeoGuelph on October 7, 2016 - 7:05pm

Setting out onto the Great Lakes, a team of researchers found some alarming data. An article by the CBC follows the 5 Gyres Institute as they test the Great Lakes for microplastic pollution. 

As more states and governments ban microbeads in their cosmetics, we are realizing that there is much more to this pollution problem than just that. The team found that microplastics pollution encompasses synthetic fibres from clothing, and abrasives from products like industrial chemicals and toothpaste. The particles that are being found in the lakes are 5 mm in size or smaller - too small to be filtered by standard water treatment plants. The article describes how serious the situation is, stating that there are currently 43000 to 466000 particles per square kilometre. This number surprised me because although I was aware of the issue, I did not expect the levels to already be this high, and the article reports that the results of the study revealed micro plastics in every single sample collected. The numbers are astronomical to me and show that we have either ignored it long enough to build up this much, or that they build up at an unprecedented rate. Either way, the findings show how dire the situation is and how critical it is that the infiltration be reduced as much as possible, as soon as possible. The article doesn't spend as much time explaining the effects of the plastics and why they pose such a problem. The accumulation concerns scientists because the plastics are the perfect size for fish and other aquatic animals to ingest thinking it is viable food. The plastics absorb toxins in the water and then collect in fish stomachs, endangering their health, and tricking the digestive system so they ingest less food and less nutrients. The plastics will accumulate up the food chain, harming larger fish and coming to rest in the catch that many people consume. 


The level to which this issue has arisen and been tackled is to me, both unheard of, yet also quite comforting. For a relatively new problem, the article mentions that the House of Commons voted in March of 2015, to put in motion a ban on microbeads. It usually takes years for legislature to be discussed and implemented regarding environmental policy. In an era of ‘slacktivism’ - doing ones part by showing concern without really doing anything about it, it is refreshing to see an issue be addressed before it falls out of the public eye. The problem only came to light about early last year, but did not fall victim to the Issue-Attention Cycle, like so many environmental concerns do. Many companies have already signed agreements to phase out microplastics, most by the end of this year. There is a curiosity invoked by their willingness, prompting the question of why didn’t they change sooner? Perhaps, it is because this is an easy issue to drive away from. Companies are complacent and happy to switch because there are plenty of natural alternatives that have always been available, they simply never had incentive.


The article is well written, but the sections don't link to each other. Jumping from the study to legislature, it is hard to determine whether or not the study will affect legislature, or if the team is just doing it for the sake of knowledge. 


Article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/microplastics-at-alarming-levels-in-ca...


Great post, reminded me of all the time I spent summarizing some of the scientific literature on microbeads and microplastics as apart of one of my former co-op jobs in 2015. This is a very interesting topic mostly because it highlights our excessive use of plastics and the consequences plastics can have. My only suggestion is to be careful when differentiating microbeads and microplastics. Microbeads (a type of microplastic) are the tiny balls in face soaps and other products which can be banned and phased out. But microplastics are also the consequence of normal plastics degrading into smaller pieces which can only be prevented by proper handling of waste and reducing littering. Other sources can be wastewater from laundry that contains small fragments of synthetic fabrics like polar fleece. Additionally, I appreciate that you highlighted the fact that toxic substances can accumulate on microplastics/beads, it is a very good point often forgotten in the media!