Microplastic waste has become a serious threat to the ecosystem – plastic pollution in particular, has grown exponentially over the past decade in Virginia, resulting in the disturbance of Chesapeake Bay and other large bodies of water. University researchers explain the significant damage microplastics can have on the environment, especially in the Chesapeake Bay, and discuss action plans to combat this adverse effect.
Microplastics are classified as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters. These often enter the ocean through sewage systems and seep into the soil and the air we breathe. Initially, researchers only knew about microplastics as microscopic particles formed by larger plastic waste that was broken down by the sun. However, new discoveries confirmed that microplastics come from synthetic fibers in clothing and microbeads from cosmetics, such as facial scrubs.
Microplastics research is minimal and, therefore, researchers do not know the specific effects of microplastics on the environment. For other environmental issues such as landfill waste, pollution and the lack of fossil fuels, the researchers proposed time limit and proposed action plans – this has not yet been developed for microplastics, however.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States Department of Commerce has expressed concerns on the lack of a large-scale, long-term collective database of visual information on microplastics along the coasts and on the high seas to support microplastic research. As a solution, NOAA’s National Environmental Information Centers created the Marine microplastics database this year, a publicly accessible and regularly updated collection of global microplastics data from researchers around the world.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Decree 77 in March, which presents a phase-out plan single-use plastics and reduce solid waste in public bodies. In response to the order, the University created a Single-Use Plastic Reduction Policy, which began with eliminating plastic waste in mess halls and replacing single-use plastic with durable, reusable take-out containers. and compostable silverware. The University is also considering expanding its composting facilities and minimizing the use of plastic bags as part of this initiative.
Similar initiatives have been implemented across the country, and environmental concerns based on plastic pollution have retailers pushed to provide more sustainable bag options, drive the reusable container trend and make plastic straws a rarity. Consumers who care about the environment have even boycotted stores that use single-use plastics.
Large plastics frequently enter the ocean and are easier to remove from the water than microplastics, which must either be filtered out of the ocean or completely prevented from entering the ocean.
The existence of plastics in large bodies of water causes a host of problems, including ecosystem disruption when animals ingest plastics and release toxic gases and food containing tiny plastics.
Ass. Engineering professor Lindsay Ivey-Burden has conducted research in environmental engineering, especially engineering for a more sustainable future. Ivey-Burden explained in more detail how these unsustainable materials end up in our environment.
“When something with synthetic fibers and polyester goes through the washer, the fibers sort of come out and they form very small micro [and] nano-plastics, ”said Ivey-Burden. “And then it goes into the sanitation system and back into the environment.”
Microplastics also enter our oceans through cosmetics, especially those labeled as exfoliators. Exfoliators contain microbeads, which produce an abrasion towards the skin which removes dead cells from the surface of the face. These microbeads easily pass through household water filtration systems and travel to large bodies of water.
In Virginia in particular, it affects the coast and its marine life. One of the most common ways of damaging the coastal system by microplastics is through oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.
“The microplastics in the water make it much more difficult for [the oysters] to filter the water – which they’re supposed to do because they’re trying to eat all the algae – and they end up eating a bunch of plastic instead of algae, ”Ivey-Burden said.
This leads to the oysters being under immense stress. In order to meet their nutritional needs, they have to filter through much more water in order to consume enough algae due to the algae-plastic ratio present in the bay.
Some areas of Chesapeake Bay also serve as hot spots for microplastics, acting as breeding grounds for chemicals and disease that are picked up by the microplastics and transported into the bay. The most common hot spots are shorelines and seagrass beds because it is easy for microplastics to settle in these areas. Black sea bass – a local fish commonly served in restaurants on the Virginia coast – is just one of the marine animals that feed near these hot spots and ingest the microplastics.
While studies show that most microplastics do not travel to the muscle tissue of fish – the part consumed by humans – scientists are still concerned about the effect of microplastics on human health. It is difficult to determine the individual impacts of these plastics on consumers as we are constantly in contact with microplastics, from bottled water and from the tap to clothing. Additionally, researchers know very little about the levels of toxicity that can harm humans as well as how processes in the food chain can affect the toxicity of plastics.
Environmental and materials scientists have studied the toxicity of plastics and the solutions needed to reduce this toxicity to people and the environment.
The researchers explored solutions microplastic waste, but some of these solutions are expensive and can lead to further destruction of the environment. Water filtration systems, for example, are one of the most discussed solutions. Filtration systems using magnets, tiny nets and vacuum cleaners have all been tested by different researchers, but it is almost impossible to filter such small pieces of plastic without also filtering out very important marine organisms.
Robert Hale, microplastics expert and chief researcher at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, explained that setting up a filtration system is unrealistic.
“It’s not just microplastics in the ocean, there are other organisms – especially floating organisms – that will be removed as well,” Hale said. “There’s just no way for these filters to sort efficiently. “
Other solutions, such as creating more durable clothing, eliminating single-use plastics, and installing filtration systems in washing machines are all viable and would have a big impact on microplastic waste. However, from a cost perspective, the likelihood that the general public will respond favorably to increase in taxes as a means of funding initiatives that stop plastic waste is very low.
“The profitability of plastic ends up feeding the monster and making it very difficult for large companies to increase production costs in order to be more environmentally friendly,” Hale said.
In order to eliminate microplastics, scientists agree that toxic additives that are in plastic waste must first be removed. Assoc. Engineering professor David Green has studied plastic waste for much of his career, particularly plastic as a material and the microscopic properties associated with it.
“By trying to remove some additives that have been shown to be toxic – things like plasticizers, stabilizers, and car pigments – and making that plastic particle, but trying to design it in such a way that when it is wet and getting into the landfill, it doesn’t degrade, ”Green said.
Green also agreed that the general reduction in plastics would help eliminate microplastics. Eliminating single-use plastics at the University is a plan that, if modeled at other universities across the country, could make a big difference.