Pictures of seals with plastic rings around their snouts and birds caught up in discarded nets can capture the public imagination, but for the last few years scientists have been concerned about a very different kind of ocean debris: microplastics. These are either tiny pellets created for industrial or cosmetic purposes, such as the exfoliating beads in some facial cleansers, or small particles of plastic that have broken down from larger pieces by the constant work of sun, wind, and water.
Microplastics have turned up in samples taken from every ocean on the planet and species from the bottom to the top of the marine food chain have been found to ingest these tiny particles – from sharks, seabirds and turtles to filter-feeders and krill.
Of course, it’s easier to find these microplastics than to find out exactly what effects they’re having on ocean — or human — life. But some of the additives in plastic have been found to cause genetic or hormonal problems in lab animals, and plastic has also been found to accumulate potentially harmful toxins (pdf).
We’ll check in with Ashley about the latest science on microplastics, and find out what she learned at a recent marine debris conference in Hawaii.
What experiences do you have with plastics in the ocean, or on the beach? What questions do you have about microplastics in particular, or marine debris more broadly? Have reports of microplastics, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, affected your choices as a consumer?
- Ashley Ahearn: A reporter at KUOW covering marine issues in the Puget Sound region as part of our new environmental journalism partnership