Microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic the size of a pencil eraser or smaller are fast becoming ubiquitous in our watersheds. But what are they exactly, and what impact can they have on our ecosystems? Although we usually write about the incredible flora and fauna in our watersheds, in honor of Coastal Cleanup Day, this month it feels appropriate to focus on this manmade addition to our natural world.
Microplastics are 5 millimeters or smaller, and have been found in every ecosystem on the planet, from urban creeks and parks to uninhabited islands, and small pieces of plastic add up to a big problem. More 90% of the plastic in the ocean (around 15-51 trillion pieces) are pieces only 10 millimeters or less. Recent studies even found them in drinking and tap water across the world, including in the US where plastics fibers were found in 94% of the tap water tested.
While scientists know where microplastics come from, the impacts on the environment and the many animals that ingest them is still not fully understood. Many microplastics originally were part of larger plastic pieces that degraded and broke apart, although they can also be a byproduct of industrial materials, or a component of product such as a microbeads in cleaning scrubs. But once they are in an ecosystem, what happens? Nothing good, scientists agree, but the full implications are not known. Fish and other marine creatures eat them, either because they smell like food, or if they are in the bellies of their prey (such as anchovies). Unfortunately, microplastic often pass through even the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities, including those in the Bay Area.
What can we do about microplastics entering our marine ecosystems? As with many global issues, it can be daunting to face the enormity of the issues, but there are a few steps we can take to tackle microplastics:
- Learn more! Research and encourage others to become more educated in microplastics. For more information about microplastics in San Francsico Bay, check out this fact sheet
- Reduce your own plastic consumption. Bring your own water bottle, coffee mug, bags etc. and chose option with less plastic packaging and no microbeads.
- Tell your representatives this is a priority.
- Join The Watershed Project and thousands of other concerned world citizens at International Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday, September 16.