The term “microplastics” is a relatively new one, referring to particles under five millimetres in width, which are formed as larger pieces of plastic break down. It’s created by everything, including fishing line, bags, paint and the dust flaking off from carpets, furniture and other household materials.
The effect of these tiny particles on biological life is unclear at this point, but what’s far easier to confirm is that these particles are everywhere. They’re in your house, your food, and even the most supposedly unspoiled places on Earth.
A study by researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, published in the journal Nature Communications, reports that Arctic sea ice is heavily contaminated with microplastics, with samples from five different sites found to contain up to 12,000 particles per litre.
What’s even more astonishing is that the scientists are able trace the particles to their place of origin, thanks to the unique signature of the plastics. Some of the Arctic samples have been traced to the Pacific Ocean garbage patch, while others drifted from the shallow seas around Siberia.
However, a substantial proportion of the debris was found to have a local origin.
“These findings suggest that both the expanding shipping and fishing activities in the Arctic are leaving their mark,” says lead author Ilka Peeken.
“The high microplastic concentrations in the sea ice can thus not only be attributed to sources outside the Arctic Ocean. Instead, they also point to local pollution in the Arctic.”
Most of the pieces were tiny – less than a 20th of a millimetre wide – which means they can enter the food chain very close to the bottom.
“They could easily be ingested by arctic microorganisms,” Peeken explains. “No one can say for certain how harmful these tiny plastic particles are for marine life, or ultimately also for human beings.”
The idea that even our most pristine ecological sites are awash with microplastics was bolstered even further with Australia’s CSIRO reporting that particles have been found in sediments from the Great Australian Bight, two kilometres beneath the surface of the waves and hundreds of kilometres offshore.
Despite this concerning trend, the research on whether microplastics are toxic is mixed – some has found that small amounts are absorbed into animal tissue while other studies suggest that they’re expelled from the body.
Andrew P Street
Andrew P Street is a widely published journalist, non-fiction author and former columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.