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What Ocean Microplastics Are Really Made of

Oceans

Magnus Larsson / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Rachel Kaufman

Humans produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic every year. As much as 12.7 million metric tons of it ends up in the ocean, where it can transport pathogens, or be mistaken for food by hungry animals.


Some is visible to the naked eye—but not all plastic pollution is obvious.

The ocean is full of microplastics 5 millimeters or smaller, about the size of a pencil eraser. At those small sizes, it can be difficult to identify where the plastic came from. Was that tiny chunk part of a water bottle or a fishing lure?

A new project at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, aims to find out. Knowing what types of plastics are most common in the ocean could help prevent the pollution in the first place.

Chemical Forensics

More than 60 percent of the debris swirling through the oceans is plastic. But plastics are not all the same. They're made of different chemical building blocks and have different densities. Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, margarine tubs are made of polypropylene. Both are lighter than seawater, so those plastics float. Other plastics are heavier, so they can be found deeper in the water column or sink to the bottom.

It's not just their densities that are different. Different plastics absorb contaminants and disease-causing microbes differently and can have different toxic effects. Knowing which types are most prevalent in what parts of the ocean, "will help us find out what is polluting the environment," said Ashok Deshpande, a research chemist at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center whose team is among the first to chemically identify ocean plastics using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The technique identifies materials based on their component parts, with the goal to create a reference library of plastics, so that scientists can identify contaminants when they're found.

Armando da Costa Duarte, a chemist at University of Aveiro, Portugal, who co-edited an academic book on chemistry and microplastics that included a chapter on mass spectrometry, said that the method is "relatively new" for ocean plastic, but that others have been working toward it. It is "a well-established method of analysis that can bring complementary information" to other techniques for chemically identifying plastic, he said by email.

It's another tool in scientists' toolbox to figure out just what's out there—and what to do about it.

So far, the NOAA project has identified various plastics from the Gulf of Mexico and beaches in Hawaii, Alaska and New Jersey. Nigel Lascelles, a NOAA Educational Partnership Program scholar, worked on the initial analyses.

The team successfully identified all but one of the scraps of collected plastic, and then some—the researchers also detected toxins like phthalates, commonly used to soften some plastics, flame retardants and—no joke—cannabidiol, a naturally occurring component of cannabis. "I don't know how that would be on plastic," Lascelles said.

Urgent Work

Next, the team plans to examine the contents of a sea turtle's stomach and samples from seabirds that ate microplastics. The chemical analysis could help identify which plastics wildlife are consuming most often. The NOAA scientists are also hoping to determine the origin of ocean microplastics by looking at additives. "Products used for human consumption may not have additives like flame retardants," Deshpande said, which could help differentiate a tossed soda bottle from an industrial component like an aircraft interior.

The work is more urgent than ever, with research showing upwards of 236,000 metric tons of microplastic particles floating on the surface of the ocean, a tiny fraction of all the plastic out there. Sea life eats a lot of it. A recent study found that baby sea turtles are dying by ingesting tiny pieces of plastic that cause intestinal blockage or nutritional deficiency. Another study, from 2017, found that small fish like anchovies are eating microplastic but possibly surviving long enough to be eaten by larger predators. That's a problem since plastics—and their associated chemical contaminants—could build up in the bodies of larger fish. Knowing more about where the plastics came from and what they are made of can help improve habitat management for fish and other marine life.

What remains clear is that when it comes to plastics in the ocean, our knowledge is just scratching the surface. "What science has analyzed so far," Deshpande said, "is a fraction of the total plastic waste into the ocean."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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