Article Series

Why Microplastics are not a Micro Problem

by Katie Trahair-Davies

Walk along any beach in Cornwall and if you look close enough you will discover tiny plastic pellets hidden among the sand. Commonly known as microplastics, these pellets are wreaking havoc in our oceans. They are a silent killer that is polluting and causing irreversible damage to our oceans and planet. 

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics’ is a general definition for any tiny piece of plastic less than five millimetres (0.2 inches) in diameter. They come in many different forms, but the most common types that can be found on the beaches today include:

  • Microbeads: tiny plastic particles purposefully added to cosmetic or hygiene products
  • Nurdles: ‘small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil’ which are produced for the purpose of melting and moulding into plastic products.
  • Secondary microplastics: pellets that start as larger plastic items but are gradually worn down by external factors (eg: bright sunlight or constant battering by waves) until they become individual fragments of plastic.

The origins of these microplastics washing up on our shores are usually everyday activities undertaken by all of us, such as showering or using a plastic bottle. Many popular cosmetic brands take advantage of the exfoliating properties offered by tiny particles of plastics like polyethylene, polystyrene or polypropylene, and can pack over 330,000 of these microbeads into a single tube of their products. Whilst this statistic is disturbing in its own right, it is the knowledge that one shower using these products can send up to 100,000 of the tiny plastic pieces drown the drain that truly illustrates how much each person could potentially be contributing to this rapidly escalating crisis.

Their Effects On Animal And Human Health

Once in the sea, microplastics affect everything in the oceanic ecosystem- both zooplankton and larger sea animals mistake the tiny pieces of plastics for other sea life and ingest them. Although it is easy for some people to remain unaware of this part of the problem because it doesn’t have an impact on their daily life, once the negative impacts start to appear along our coastlines it becomes impossible to ignore. The microplastic problem has quickly evolved into a global issue and nowhere is exempt from its affects, not even Cornwall.

Microplastics is an issue for every environment, every country, and every society

Emily Stevenson, Beach Guardian

In 2019, it was discovered that in a study of 50 marine mammals found in British waters, every single animal had evidence of microplastics in their digestive system. Last year the University of Exeter conducted similar research on demersal sharks living off the coast of Cornwall and found that 67% of the 46 sharks studied contained microplastics and other man-made fibres. The plastics the sharks had ingested were almost exclusively microfibres- suspected to originate from face masks and textiles. This being only one example of how microplastics affect Cornish Sea life, it is reasonable to assume that many more species along the county’s coast are accidentally ingesting microplastics too. Furthermore, the sad fact is that these pollutants do not sit inert within the animals. Scientists are beginning to discover that microplastics are changing the ways animals fundamentally function– with evidence that these plastics alter their feeding behaviour by decreasing hunger for actual food and blocking their digestive tracts- to name but two of the serious consequences that can occur.

As more shocking statistics are released about microplastics,it is increasingly apparent that their impact is not limited to wildlife, but that they affect the human species too. The true danger of microplastics is that- uniquely from other larger forms of plastics- they have the ability to make their way into our food chain largely unnoticed. Despite this, many people remain unaware that this is occurring and, more worryingly still, there is limited research on the effects it may have on human health.

The Problem In Cornwall And Beyond

This is not a problem that Cornwall is exempt from. Historically South West Water has used toxic biobeads as a way of cleaning water, and this has proven to be dangerous to the local environment. Over 10 years ago a spill at SWW’s treatment centre outside of Truro led to over one billion biobeads being spilt into the Fall estuary. There is now evidence that these same biobeads have entered local food chains: an investigation lead by the University of Plymouth discovered that when looking at the digestive matters of a gull found downstream of the Estuary, almost half of the contents found were the biobeads earlier discovered in the surrounding waters. It is not a huge leap of the imagination to assume that these same beads found in local wildlife are already in our food and water.

Despite the UK government banning the production and use of these plastics for cosmetic or hygiene products in 2018, there is yet to be any slowing of these beads appearing on our beaches and in the ocean. Whilst the ban was a huge step in the right direction, the influx of microplastics will only start to slow when a larger proportion of countries enact bans on the production and usage of this type of plastic. Emily Stevenson of environmental charity Beach Guardian said that “People may be aware that there is now a ban, but they weren’t necessarily aware why that ban came into force and what products had the microplastics in”.

She continued: “All of our bodies are getting polluted with microplastics, the air that we breath is polluted with microplastics, the water that we drink is polluted with microplastics, and yet there are no visual tools for us to communicate this”. It is this invisibility that is making the spread of microplastics so harmful and also exacerbating ignorance. Although we are already swimming amongst them when we take a dip in the sea, walking on them hidden in the sand and they pollute almost every aspect of our lives, the majority of people remain unaware of this, and for those who have more knowledge of the issue the size of the pollutants can lead to a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

With microplastics quickly becoming one of the main causes of plastic pollution in the oceanic world, it is imperative that people very quickly become more educated about this issue, how they might be inadvertently contributing to it and what we all need to do to address it. However, this is too big a problem for the public to tackle by itself unless there is increased backing from governments all over the world. A global issue like this calls for global awareness and a united global response- and fast.   

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