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EAF-Nansen Programme

Invisible marine pollution: understanding microplastic pollution in the oceans

Microplastic sample gathered by the team

Floating plastic islands reported by the media to be twice the size of Texas and the visible effects of marine litter have pushed plastic pollution to the stage of the G7 summit. Images of animals mistaking plastic bags for other organisms or plastic particles that enter their bodies have inspired fears of the disposable plastic that dominates everyday life. However, these fears manipulate the truth and the extent of current knowledge.

Garbage patches in the sea contain some patches of visible debris, but other spaces are polluted by microplastics, plastic particles commonly defined as less than 5 mm in diameter. Spillages and handling errors lead to pellets accumulating on beaches and ports.

These particles include ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ microplastics. Primary microplastics are used in their pellet form in products like cosmetics and are sometimes called ‘the bead.’

Secondary microplastics originate from fragmented larger items.

Fragmentation occurs most effectively on beaches where UV irradiation and waves’ physical force are high, but the process slows in the water with colder temperatures and reduced UV exposure.

Plastic fragmentation rates vary based on their location on the coast or in the ocean

Research on their effects remains preliminary, and experts caution against drawing conclusions. For example, many organisms ingest these particles, but effects on the organisms’ lives remain unclear. The UN’s Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) recently released a report describing possible risks from microplastics pollution and highlighting future areas of research. Readers should feel reassured by this proactive research isolating the effects of microplastics on fish stocks and human health.

10/07/2015

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