Trendy smartphones and tablets have been getting bigger, but pollutants have been trending smaller. We’ve long known that microfibers from our clothes and microbeads from our shower gels are taking over the planet. The latest news? Microplastics, once trapped in arctic sea ice, are escaping into the warming water. Despite their size, they can cause major health problems for animals high and low on the food chain.
Microplastics are tiny particles created when larger plastic parts break down or disperse during production. The tiny rubble rolls into rivers, which sends them, eventually, to the sea. If the pieces reach the Arctic, they will usually freeze into the ice; however, if that melts, they make attractive snacks for confused sea creatures. It starts with microbes, mistaking the colors, shapes, and sizes of the plastics for food, and then larger creatures consuming the microbes, and so on and so forth, in a process called biomagnification that kicks the plastic up the food chain.
The first evidence of microplastics in the Arctic was reported in Nature in 2015. In that first study, scientists found microplastics in both the upper and lower levels of the water, which concerned them, because the further the plastic descends, the more animals around to eat them. More recently, British scientists found enormous pieces of plastic sitting on top of ice floes. This finding suggests that it’s easier than ever for plastic to reach the Arctic and its marine life, exacerbated by the constant pace of plastic consumption and rising waters, hurrying the junk to formerly pristine areas.
Scientists are worried about the effects of plastics on every level of the Arctic ecosystem. You may have heard about turtles, dolphins, and shore birds choking or injuring themselves by eating plastic rings. If animals swallow plastic, it can cause internal bleeding, starvation, and organ rupture, according to scientists. Similarly, tiny plastic beads, usually from shower gels and similar products, can stick to skin, inhibiting movement or photosynthesis. However, the scariest part about microplastics is that we don’t know their full impacts on ecosystems. Scientists will have to watch what happens in real time.
So far, there is no way to remove large amounts of microplastics from the environment or prevent animals from eating them. But that’s not even the point, as the real problem is our own human obsession with plastics. Since the 1950s, we have created 8.3 million tons of plastics but only recycled 2 million, Gizmodo recently reported. The majority of it is thrown away after one use. The Guardian recently swam into the fray to report that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. Want to staunch the tide of plastics? Follow the environmentalist’s credo: reduce, reuse, recycle.