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Australian Researchers: 'We Found Evidence of Microplastics Pretty Much Everywhere We Looked'

A lot of attention is paid to the floating junkyards on our high seas, but a new study highlights how the problem of marine plastic goes much deeper.

Australian researchers were surprised to find high concentrations of microplastics embedded in the seafloor along the southeast coast of Australia.

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A seal entangled in plastic netting on Bird Island. Claire Waluda

Plastic Pollution in Antarctica 5 Times Worse Than Expected

Not only have microplastic particles infiltrated the pristine Antarctic, the problem is much worse than anyone thought.

Scientists from the University of Hull and the British Antarctic Survey have determined that the levels of microplastics are five times higher than previous estimates. The results were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

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Even Your Sea Salt Contains Microplastics

Sea salt may be healthy and rich in minerals, but a new study found it is also rich in plastic.

Sea salt has gained some popularity in the past few years for mega health benefits like increased energy and immunity, and improved skin and dental health. But, a team of researchers tested 17 sea salt brands from eight different countries and found some shocking results.

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Microplastics in Oceans Outnumber Stars in Our Galaxy by 500 Times

The United Nations is "declaring war" on the biggest sources of planetary pollution—ocean plastic. On Thursday, the intergovernmental organization's environment program (UNEP) launched its #CleanSeas campaign at the World Ocean Summit hosted by The Economist in Bali, Indonesia.

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22 Million Pounds of Plastic Enters the Great Lakes Each Year

U.S. and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a new Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Most of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there.

Researchers said that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit are the worst contributors to the plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie comes in at number two, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

"This study is the first picture of the true scale of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes," said Matthew Hoffman, assistant professor in RIT's School of Mathematical Sciences and lead author of the study.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year.

"Every piece of plastic entering our watersheds is an example of a serious design flaw: we are manufacturing products that have no recovery plan or value after they leave consumer's hands," said Anna Cummins, co-founder and global strategy director of 5 Gyres Institute. "Just as we demand that people dispose of their trash properly, we must also demand that companies take responsibility for the end life of their products."

Plastic debris in the Great Lakes moves differently than in the ocean. Instead of the free-floating garbage patches that are driven by ocean currents, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic in the Great Lakes is carried by winds and currents toward shore.

"Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie," Hoffman explained. "Particles released from Toronto appear to accumulate on the southern coast of Lake Ontario, including around Rochester and Sodus Bay."

But, like the oceans, much of what remains as floating trash in the Great Lakes consists of microplastics, which are consumed by fish and enter the food chain.

"Similar to what we find worldwide, much of the plastic is microplastic, which are fragments smaller than a grain of rice and practically impossible to clean up, making prevention the only real option," said Marcus Eriksen, research director at 5 Gyres Institute.

Estimates of surface microplastics entering the lakes each year show 9,722 pounds in Lake Erie, 3,174 pounds in Lake Huron and less than 50 pounds in Lake Superior.

"Like our successful microbead campaign, the fact of so much trash entering the Great Lakes is an opportunity to identify the most common brands and work with those companies to improve recovery or choose something less harmful than plastic for their products and packaging," said Eriksen.

The RIT study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin, used computer simulations and mathematical modeling to provide a more complete and accurate picture of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Researchers said that the study could help inform future cleanup and prevention efforts.

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Melting Arctic Ice Could Unlock Massive Amounts of Frozen Microplastics

Out of the nearly 300 million tons of plastic created in 2012, 10 percent of it ended up in oceans, according to Phys.org. That trash has to go somewhere—washing onto coastlines and estuaries, or floating in the vast ocean. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre where an enormous amount of trash circulates. Now, however, it looks like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has an unassuming competitor in trapping marine debris: the Arctic.

The microplastics observed were mostly blue, black, green and red in color, with rayon being the most prevalent material. Photo credit: Oceans Watch

A recently published study in Earth’s Future found that a significant amount of microplastics, sub-millimeter broken down pieces of plastic, sit frozen in Arctic sea ice—enough to designate the Arctic as a major global sink for these tiny plastic particles. If melting trends continue at their current rate, explain the authors, the sea ice could unlock over one trillion pieces of microplastics over the next decade alone.

“The abundance of microplastics was substantial, ranging from 38 to 234 particles per cubic meter of ice,” the report said. “Although litter has been reported in northern Europe including the Arctic, this is the first report of microplastic in the Arctic and the microplastic concentrations we found are at least two orders of magnitude greater than those reported in Atlantic waters north of Scotland or in waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.”

The authors hypothesized that the particles entered the Arctic from the Pacific Ocean, where both marine debris and microplastics are common. Microplastics accumulate in the oceans from three main sources: microbeads in cosmetics, breaking down of plastic debris and fibers from washing machines, according to the paper.

Ironically, the authors did not intend to study microplastics; instead, they set out to search for sediments and diatoms in sea ice cores from two different National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA studies, and unintentionally discovered these synthetic particles in varying locations throughout the Arctic Ocean. Their prevalence encouraged the researchers to examine the remaining ice cores, adhering to strict sampling and handling protocols as to not introduce their own plastic particles into the samples. The pieces observed were mostly blue, black, green and red in color, with rayon being the most prevalent material (which the authors point out is technically not a plastic, but a manmade semi-synthetic material used in cigarette filters and hygiene products). Other materials included polyester, nylon, polypropylene, polystyrene, acrylic and polyethylene, according to the study.

So, how do these particulates impact marine life?

Marine organisms ingest these particulates, and there’s evidence that the chemicals in these plastics build-up in the organism. A 2013 study found that a species of marine worm, for example, became affected by the toxins, and some even died. Another study, published that same year, found that these plastics and toxins accumulate in the food chain.

And larger marine debris poses additional threats: Fishing nets, plastic bags and tires can sink to the ocean floor and smother coral reefs, while fishing gear can entangle marine mammals and other animals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Other marine life, like sea turtles and birds, can forsake plastics for food, which can lead to malnutrition or starvation.

Sea ice melt already has a range of consequences, including rising sea levels, disruption to food chains, and habitat loss for many species, but this study points out that climate change has unexpected consequences for the oceans—like Arctic ice unlocking these plastics. The authors suggest that their findings indicate a need to sample Antarctic ice to determine the presence of microplastics there too, and that further studies need to be undertaken to fully understand the environmental impacts of these particulates in the marine environment.

This article was originally published on Oceana's blog.

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