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What are Microplastics?

Plastic is an umbrella term for synthetic polymers made mainly from fossil fuels (petroleum) or, to a much lesser extent, from biomass (cellulose). There is a wide assortment of plastic that is produced, varying in both composition and material characteristics. The polymers are also mixed with chemical additives (e.g,. plasticizers), to give the materials specific properties. Some additives are extremely noxious and are released from the plastic under certain conditions. The term microplastic was created recently to describe plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in diameter.

What are the effects of microplastics on human bodies?

Scientific research on the effects of microplastic on humans and animals is still in its early stages. Much of the research focuses on larger-sized microplastics, between 50 microns and 5 mm in size. However, we already know of the grave consequences they can cause, such as tissue damage and inflammation.

Numerous publications have now shown that microplastic particles are ingested by birds, marine mammals, marine turtles, fish, and various invertebrates (such as crustaceans and filter-feeding planktonic organisms). Furthermore, laboratory experiments observed negative impacts of exposure to plastic particles on photosynthesis in algae. Intake of plastic by marine animals can cause internal injuries or intoxications, when the body absorbs noxious substances from the material. It has also been shown that microplastic particles may accumulate high concentrations of water-soluble contaminants like biocides or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). Microplastic particles are ingested by small marine animals which are generally prey for larger animals. 

How are Microplastics Created?

Primary microplastic is industrially manufactured in the form of resin pellets. Plastic pellets are often leaked into the environment through poor handling and are now commonly found on beaches, especially near ports. 

Secondary microplastic is generated by the fragmentation of larger plastic items by UV radiation, physical abrasion (waves, rocks), and microbial processes. Synthetic textiles may also be a source of microplastic, when parts of fibers are loosened during laundering and then washed into the sewage. Microplastic particles can be found in nearly every environment, both marine and terrestrial, at the bottom of the ocean, on beaches, on water surfaces, and on mountaintops. Both macroplastic and microplastic are also present in remote areas far away from civilization. A recent study estimated that around 5.25 trillion microplastic particles, weighing some 269,000 tons, float on the surface of the oceans. There are also large quantities of microplastic in rivers and lakes from where they may also eventually end up in the oceans.

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