Plastic starts and ends its life as microplastic

 

Plastic in the form of tiny particles (less than 5mm in diameter) are a widespread and growing pollutant in the environment. Plastic doesn’t break down, it just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastic.  All plastic littered in the sea will eventually end up in microplastic form. Some marine plastic called ‘primary microplastic’, enters the environment pre-formed in tiny pieces, from the powder-like microbeads used in cosmetics, to the chocolate-chip sized nurdles used to make most plastic products.

Microplastic meals

A growing number of studies show us that many different animals ingest microplastic, including those species that are at the base of our food chain, the animals we eat as food, and as a result, us humans.

A chemical cocktail

Our understanding of microplastic impacts in our ecosystems and bodies is still young. “Plastic” is not just one material, there are many different types of plastic and each plastic is a mixture of  chemical compounds. These chemicals might be contaminants in the oil used to make plastic or additives to make the plastic more useable.  Plastics in the ocean can also carry  pollutants adsorbed to the microplastic’s surface. A growing number of scientific studies aim to map out potential interactions of these particles and associated chemicals in our environment, and in the organs and bloodstreams of species that are exposed to them.

Impacting our ecosystems

Studies show that microfibres can reduce feeding habits of zooplankton [1], impact reproduction of oysters [2], and increase the chemical load of fish [3]. Larger microplastic particles such as nurdles have been found in seabirds’ stomachs [4], with the potential to lead to reduced feeding, and in extreme cases, starvation [5].

Although our understanding is still growing, we know that we need to act now to reduce the amount of microplastic building in our environment. Microplastic doesn’t need to be entering the environment at all, and there are a host of ways to stop this plastic becoming litter in the first place.

How we are tackling microplastic pollution

 

Fidra addresses microplastic pollution from artificial pitches, nurdles and sewage related litter. We have also supported a programme of work at Fauna & Flora International focusing on microplastic pollution.

We keep up to date with scientific research, and are members of the Scottish Microplastics Research Group within the MASTS (Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland). We also sit on the Scottish Government Marine Litter Strategy Steering Group, which allows us to share our knowledge of the subject with decision makers. We regularly contribute expertise on the issue to relevant consultation responses and inquiries. You can find relevant public responses at the bottom of this page.

Artificial sports pitches can be a source of microplastic pollution, particularly from the loss of rubber crumb used as a ‘performance infill’ to provide optimum playing conditions and to reduce injury. Together with KIMO International, we have developed best practice guidelines that help to reduce microplastic loss from pitches, from design to disposal.

Nurdles are microplastic granules used by industry to make new plastic products. Accidental spillage can happen wherever they are handled, so this preventable pollution represents a loss even before plastic has become a consumer product. We are working to raise awareness with the public, industry and decision makers, to find a solution to this problem at source and stop new nurdles entering our seas.

The Fidra Trustees have supported a programme of work at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) since2012, which recognises the potential impact of microplastic pollution on marine biodiversity.

FFI has developed strong links with researchers, NGOs, industry representatives and regulators on a wide number of microplastic issues and has worked to address a number of direct sources of microplastics.

FFI has been at the forefront of efforts in the UK (and beyond) to halt the use of microplastic ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries, and created the Good Scrub Guide – subsequently in partnership with the Marine Conservation Society – to help raise consumer awareness and give people an easy way to take positive action. In addition, a Good Scrub Guide Australia has also been produced and the project has supported the development of a mobile App, Beat the MicroBead developed in partnership with the Plastic Soup Foundation.  The Good Scrub Guide provided FFI with a vital platform from which to engage with businesses and governments. As a result, world-leading legislation has been introduced by the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments, with broader restrictions on microbeads and other microplastics intentionally added to products being considered under the EU-level REACH legislation in 2019.

FFI have also undertaken significant research to understand pre-production plastic pellet pollution, building relationships with plastics industry representatives and policy makers to work towards sustainable solutions.

© W. Burner