Peppered in the blue waves of the ocean are tiny pieces of plastic debris known as microplastics. Microplastics are less than five millimeters in length and are roughly the size of a sesame seed. Microplastics come from larger plastics like water bottles and are even found in products that are used day to day, like toothpaste. When larger plastics enter the ocean, they begin to degrade and break down into small pieces and then those small pieces break down into smaller pieces and so on. While it may seem as though the plastic would be less of a problem once it is the size of a sesame seed, it actually has the propensity to become a much larger problem . . . and it has.
Microplastics can pose a threat to aquatic life. When an organism, such as a fish, ingests microplastics, the debris can build up in their digestive tract, preventing the fish from being able to properly absorb chemicals from their food. This can run up the food chain, as the predator that consumes the fish also consumes the plastic lodged in its prey; this can affect humans that consume the fish who consume the plastic. The microplastics roam farther than the waves and bellies of marine organisms.
A recent report sheds light on the microplastics that are building up on the ocean floor, with researchers calling it one of the first global estimates. Australia’s National Science Agency reported that between 9.25 million and 15.87 million tons of microplastics are embedded on the sea floor like the speckled tiles covering a kitchen floor. There are so many microplastics accumulating in the ocean that the denser pieces sink to the bottom. This amount of microplastics is far greater than the microplastics sailing across the oceans surface, the sinking carpet of plastic decorating the ocean floor is equated to somewhere between 18 to 24 shopping bags full of tiny plastic fragments for every square foot of coastline on earth besides Antarctica.
Microplastics are nomads and are not confined to the sea. They are found in air particles, spread through the wind and the buoyant types of plastic can wash up on beaches, becoming camouflaged in the sand or get washed out into deeper waters. The pieces may have been intended for single use, but they are nearly immortal, living on through the environment around us. In the sea alone, scientists believe that there is between 4.4 million to 8.8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean every year. Science consistently highlights the ubiquity of the plastic problem. Eradication of all single use plastics needs to happen now. The ocean is not a bottomless pit, it is an overflowing pot that will look like garbage and smell like saltwater so long as this continues.
If there were 24 shopping bags full of plastic in your front yard or 15.87 tons of plastic littering your neighborhood, would it matter more?