Microplastic from Textiles Detected on Shorelines

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Animals can eat microplastics through food items in the water. Photo by Oliver Ffrench

What are microplastics doing to the environment?

A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology shows that shorelines in every continent contain microplastic. This substance mainly comes from washing textiles in washing machines, and it can cause serious problems to the environment.

What Is Microplastic?

The use of plastic materials increased greatly in recent decades; according to recent estimates, more than 240 million tonnes of plastic are used every year. Many plastic objects common in everyday life, such as bottles, bags, man-made textiles like polyester, etc., are normally used only for a short period of time, and then discarded as waste. This generates increasing amounts of wastes, released into the environment.

The majority of plastic compounds are quite stable and not biodegradable; this means that they do not decompose into their basic elements (i.e. carbon, oxygen, hydrogen). Some larger plastic objects, however, tend to degrade into smaller pieces; objects with dimensions smaller than 1 mm are defined microplastics.

Toxic Microfibers: A Threat to the Environment

Microplastic can be very harmful to the environment; these small plastic fragments tend to accumulate in waters, such as shorelines, deep sea and oceans. This was shown in a preliminary study published in Science in 2004. Marine life can be very affected by the microplastic pollution, as fish and other marine species eat it. This can be dangerous, not only because the plastic itself can be toxic, but also because the plastic may have absorbed more toxic chemicals from the polluted waters.

Microplastic can also be present in sewage; this can happen even if these effluents are treated in appropriate treatment plants. This is because the majority of treatments are aimed at removing bigger plastic contaminants and do not target microplastics. The presence of these tiny bits of plastic is a feature that has to be taken into account when these effluents are released in the environment.

More Information Needed

Although microplastic pollution is a well known problem, more knowledge is necessary about several aspects of it; the sources of microplastic and its pathways from the source into the environment, for instance, have not been fully investigated.

Recently, a systematic study was performed in a project by the School of Biology & Environmental Sciences  (University College Dublin, Ireland), together with the University of Plymouth UK (School of Marine Science & Engineering and School of Geography), the University of Exeter (School of Biosciences) and the University of Sydney (School of Biological Sciences).

In this investigation, the shorelines of 18 sites were monitored, to see the level of microplastic concentration and its nature. The sites were chosen worldwide, covering all continents; sampling was performed at regular interval, for a 3-year period (from 2004 to 2007). Furthermore, effluents from sewage and from sewage sludge disposal sites were also tested; this was done to establish the contribution of these effluents to microplastic pollution.

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