Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Penn State Extension: Microplastics In Our Waters, An Unquestionable Concern

Microplastic pollution is not a new problem. However, in recent years, the public has become more aware, and scientists are studying the seriousness of the problem.
Have you ever stood on a riverbank after a heavy rain and noticed how much plastic waste floats by? Gallon milk jugs, plastic bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, rubber balls, etc. all race downstream. Plastic, plastic and more plastic.
Where does this plastic waste in waterways originate?
People. We have become a throw-away society. Statistics are staggering. Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. Every week, 10 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. (Univ. of Tennessee). 
Eight million metric tons of discarded plastic makes its way to the oceans each year according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Plastic waste enters both land and water sources through littering, poor waste management, stormwater runoff, fishing vessels, cargo and cruise ships and more. 
Many plastics float, so countless plastic items of all shapes and sizes make their journey downstream, eventually making their way to the oceans.
What happens to this plastic debris over time?
Unfortunately, wildlife may consume some of the plastic or become entangled in it, likely leading to their death. We have all seen the unsettling photos of sea turtles strangled by plastic six pack rings or dead marine animals washed ashore with pounds of plastic in their stomachs. 
Also, you may have heard of great garbage patches in the oceans where vast amounts of marine debris, mostly plastics, collect. These patches are not islands of floating trash and are not easily detected from above. 
Rather, the garbage patches consist of broken up pieces of plastic suspended throughout the water column. Imagine it like flecks of pepper floating in a bowl of soup. Clean-up efforts are extremely difficult.
Plastics degrade over time but never go away. They break up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics and microscopic nanoplastics. 
Microplastics are bits of plastic less than 5 mm in size, smaller than a popcorn kernel. They are found in every ecosystem on Earth and consist of microbeads, microfibers and broken-down pieces of plastic.
Microbeads are tiny abrasives, usually polyethylene, found in wash-off cosmetics, cleansers and toothpaste. 
In 2015 the U.S. Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, banning the use of microbeads in cosmetics and toothpaste. Over the past four years, manufacturers started phasing them out of products, but they continue to be used and are still found in waterways.
Microfibers are tiny pieces of threads and fibers that break off clothing. Clothing made from plastic (nylon, polyester, rayon, acrylic and spandex) sheds microfibers with every wash. These microfibers and microbeads go down the drain into sewer systems. 
Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove all particles. Therefore, microplastics can be discharged into waterways through wastewater effluent. 
If the microplastics are removed during the treatment process, they can remain in the sewage sludge that may be applied as fertilizer on agricultural fields. 
They can still end up in the environment, entering waterways through runoff. 
Microfibers are also in the air, entering waterways through dust fallout and surface runoff.
Should we be concerned?
Microplastics can leach chemicals into the environment. However, an even greater danger, they attract and concentrate heavy metals and organic pollutants dissolved in the water. 
One example is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Even though PCBs have been banned, they are still present all over the world in both land and aquatic environments. 
Plastic debris accumulates pollutants up to 100,000-1,000,000 times levels found in seawater, according to NOAA. This chemical adsorption and bioaccumulation add a whole new level of concern.
Are we consuming microplastics?
Yes. Microplastics are present in both tap water and bottled water. A study showed that an average of 325 plastic particles were found in a liter of bottled water as compared to 5.5 plastic particles per liter of tap water, according to Sherri Mason, a Penn State researcher. 
Microplastics are consumed by aquatic life and bioaccumulate in the food chain, travelling all the way from filter feeders to apex predators. 
We consume toxin saturated microplastics in seafood such as mussels but likely consume more microplastics in food via dust fallout from the air.
Do microplastics impact our health?
The answers are not yet clear, but microplastics are found in food, air, water and soil. They are literally everywhere. Scientists are studying impacts to both animal and human health. Much more research needs to be done to know what adverse effects they may have.
What can you do?
Amounts of microplastics in the environment are likely to increase with the increase of plastic production. Although depressing, there are simple things you can do to cut down on this growing problem--
-- Reduce use of single use plastics.
-- Purchase items with less packaging.
-- Use reusable water bottles/coffee mugs.
-- Refuse plastic straws/lids when dining out. Consider purchasing a reusable straw.
-- Pack trash free lunches. Use reusable containers/utensils.
-- Use reusable shopping bags rather than plastic ones.
-- When eating out, take a reusable container for leftovers.
-- Recycle when possible.
-- Use microplastic catch bags when washing fleece and other synthetic fabrics.
-- Secure waste bins on collection days.
-- Buy used.
-- Repair/maintain products like clothing and appliances.
-- Borrow, rent or share items you don’t use frequently.
-- Get involved. Participate in local clean-ups.
-- Educate about plastic waste and impacts on the environment.
Microplastic pollution is not a new problem. However, in recent years, the public has become more aware, and scientists are studying the seriousness of the problem. The problem is vast, but everyone can make conscious decisions to reduce the use of single use plastics.

(Reprinted from the Penn State Extension Watershed Winds newsletter.  Click Here to sign up for your own copy.)

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[Posted: January 21, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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