MicroPlastics Major Problem

In honor of Earth Day:

Below is a recent submission regarding my research with Marine Environment Microplastic Pollution, as a conclusion to my Sustainable Management Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin in May 2017.

Persistent plastic production and use throughout the world has contributed to a growing debris issue within marine environments. Since the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Captain Charles Moore in 1997, a vision has been painted of a giant oceanic floating island comprised of plastic (Kostigen). Such is not necessarily the case. The much larger problem can be represented in much smaller fractions: microplastics. Microplastics are defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as particles ranging in size from one nanometer to less than five millimeters in diameter (National Ocean Service). According to an article by Richard Thompson entitled Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Sources, Consequences and Solutions, “the term microplastics has been widely used in relation to anthropogenic debris since 2004 when Thompson et al. used the term to illustrate and describe the accumulation of truly microscopic pieces of plastic in marine sediments and in the water” (Thompson 186).

Marine microplastic pollution is a result of not only the improper disposal of plastic products but also a growing production of plastic manufactured goods. Primary sources of plastic include virgin pellets to be used as raw material for manufacturing or to be used as microbeads in personal care and hygiene products (Barboza and Gimenez). Since plastic does not degrade, plastic pollution in the oceans continues to accumulate. Larger pieces become fragile with exposure to sunlight and seawater and fragment into microplastics. In Barboza and Gimenez’s article, Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Current Trends and Future Perspectives, secondary sources are defined as “fragments and fibers obtained from the fragmentation of larger plastic debris, resulting from photothermal degradation, oxidation, and/or mechanical abrasion” (Barboza and Gimenez). The persistent accumulation of microplastic pollution in marine ecosystems and coastal environments is causing environmental, societal and economic issues and the reduction, policies and current cleanup efforts are inadequate to deal with the magnitude of this global issue.


The problem of plastic pollution in oceans can be addressed primarily with source reduction. There are a number of ways to implement source reduction of plastic products, and some recent popular policies to do so include banning microbeads in personal cosmetics. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 is a great start; however, it has some loopholes that make it still concerning for addressing the issue of microplastic pollution. Some international policies may have more effective methods, such as the revisions to New Zealand’s Waste Minimisation Act (WMA) to control and manage the sale and manufacture of personal care products with microbeads. Other efforts include educating the consuming public on plastics, pollution, and encouraging vigilant recycling campaigns, as well as alternative materials and purchasing habits. Cleaning the enormous existing plastic pollution from the oceans and beaches is a daunting task.

To gain more insight into the problem and potential solutions, this paper will uncover specific complications related to oceanic plastic pollution through research of scholarly articles, peer-reviewed journal publications, and a variety of films documenting marine plastic pollution and its effects. I have acquired several published articles about microplastics including consumption of microplastics by marine life, measuring sorbed toxins in plastics in the oceans, and impacts of microplastics on organisms and human health. Through the research, interviews, and volunteer opportunities, I will have a better understanding of the problem and potential solutions regarding microplastic pollution in the oceans, which will be presented in the form of a critical analysis. This analysis will demonstrate my ability to analyze issues within International Development and Sustainability.


While it is nearly impossible to grasp an accurate and specific count of how much microplastic pollution is contaminating marine environments, it is a global issue.  As stated in Thompson’s article, microplastic contamination spans “from the poles to the equator and contaminates the water surface of the open ocean, estuaries, and lakes, together with marine and freshwater shorelines and subtidal sediments down to the deep sea…[and] reported in considerable concentrations in Arctic sea ice” (Thompson 186). Microplastic in marine environments comes from primary sources of raw material, as well as secondary “macro” plastics. Since fragmented “macro”plastic is a significant source of microplastics in marine environments, it is imperative to consider these sources when researching microplastic concentrations. World plastic production and consumption has grown exponentially over the last sixty years. Per Duis and Coors’ article Microplastics in the Aquatic and Terrestrial Environment: Sources (with a Specific Focus on Personal Care Products), Fate and Effects, world plastic production is up “from 1.7 million t in 1950 to 299 million t in 2013” (Duis and Coors). While there is a lot of research being conducted on sources of plastics, concentrations in marine environments and on land (i.e. beaches and sediment), there are still a lot of unknowns with regards to microplastics and the overall quantification within these ecosystems. It is agreed upon through scientific research and findings that microplastics are invading marine ecosystems at alarming rates; however, the full scope of their impacts and many critical issues are not entirely understood (Barboza and Gimenez).

To gain more insight, researchers employ distinct techniques such as direct sampling and analysis methods to determine and evaluate various risks. Sampling methods vary depending on the environment and types of plastics being identified; however, most commonly researchers utilize a variety of methods from bulk water sampling to volume-reducing sampling such as mesh collection nets or density separation. Since plastic generally has a lower specific weight than sediment, samples can be mixed with a saline solution at the appropriate density to separate sediments and plastics (Duis and Coors). The abundance of plastic within samples is commonly expressed as a number or mass concentration per area, per volume, or per sediment weight, depending on the type of sampling systems.

According to Duis and Coors, the “highest concentrations of pre-production pellets (up to 100,000 pellets/m of beach) were often found on beaches close to plastic producing or processing sites” (Duis and Coors). Additionally, natural disasters such as typhoons or hurricanes also contribute to increased plastics within marine environments, as well as complications during shipping and transportation. The LA Times recently reported a spillage of 165 tons of plastic resin pellets, often referred to as nurdles, into the water and washing up on Hong Kong beaches after a powerful typhoon (see Figure 1).


Figure 1 Nurdles washed up on Hong Kong beach, (Alpert)

Secondary microplastic sources and concentration patterns are much more difficult to track since they are generated from macroplastics and subject to so many variable external sources. According to Duis and Coors, “general littering, dumping of plastic waste and loss from inappropriately managed landfill sites and during waste collection are assumed to be the most important routes of entry of plastic materials into the environment” (Duis and Coors).  By increasing the knowledge about these secondary microplastic sources, and understanding their origin and path to marine ecosystems, better solutions can be implemented to get to the root cause and mitigate the pathways by which they pollute.

Overall, concentrations of microplastics throughout the world vary depending on population density, environmental and climate circumstances and oceanic currents and convergence (Wright, Thompson and Galloway).  Microplastic concentrations are higher on seawater surface layers than below the surface (Duis and Coors).  Research also indicates higher concentrations levels of microplastics closer to industrial hubs and more densely populated coastlines.  Duis and Coors also report that “due to the embrittlement and fragmentation of larger plastic items present in the oceans, it had been predicted that the overall abundance of microplastics will increase in the future” (Duis and Coors).  Because microplastic pollution is directly anthropogenic in cause, the concentration patterns follow the most people throughout much of the research, as in where there are more people there will be more plastics and higher concentrations of microplastics in marine ecosystems.



Ingestion by marine life. These microplastic particles make their way onto beaches throughout the world and are ingested by marine life, as well as by seabirds and other organisms.  In an article in the Marine Pollution Bulletin by Jose G.B. Derraik, it is stated that there is “evidence that some seabirds select specific plastic shapes and colors mistaking them for potential prey items” (Derraik 844).  Fish and birds attempting to ingest plastic particles as food create a number of issues including physiological symptoms to the organism by way of reducing the actual food capacity in their stomachs which can lead to malnourishment or starvation effects. The Physical Impacts of Microplastics on Marine Organisms by Stephanie Wright, Richard Thompson, and Tamara Galloway, cites that ingestion of microplastics “could potentially cause blockages throughout the digestive system, suppressing feeding due to satiation” (Wright, Thompson and Galloway 489). Additionally, the microplastic particles, specifically secondary fragmented particles can cause internal injuries including perforated organs, as well as reduced food and nutritional reuptake.

Furthermore, as stated by Thompson, “plastics are known to sorb persistent organic pollutants and metals from seawater and… there is evidence from laboratory studies that these chemicals can be transferred from plastics to organisms upon ingestion and that this can result in harm” (Thompson 190). These toxins contained within the plastic particles can be absorbed by the organisms and can bioaccumulate in the tissues of the organism ingesting the microplastics.  This is further complicated when organisms are consumed in significant quantities by their predators, resulting in a biomagnification of the concentration of toxins and chemicals present further up the food chain.

Biomagnification and Trophic Transfer. The consequences of biomagnification of concentrated toxins and chemicals throughout the trophic levels is still being researched; however, “given that lower trophic organisms, specifically invertebrates, can ingest and accumulate microplastic particles, it is likely that microplastics will be introduced to the food web” (Wright, Thompson and Galloway 490). It has been suggested in several studies that there is potential for biomagnification to higher trophic levels, including toxin and chemical transfer to humans via ingestion from eating marine organisms with contaminated tissues.  Further research is needed to confirm these claims, and reach conclusive outcomes or identify and quantify the level of threat that microplastic ingestion and trophic transfer might play on the food that ends up on the dinner table.


Policies. A joint effort assessment by the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) published a global assessment entitled Sources, Fate and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment in 2015.  The GESAMP report assessment “represents the first attempt, at a global scale, to identify the main sources, fate, and effects of microplastics in the ocean” (GESAMP).  Along with the assessment of the current situation of microplastics in marine environments, the assessment also recommends that to properly develop policies and solutions going forward, there is a need to “identify probable ‘hotspots’ of land- and sea-based sources for plastic and microplastics…[which] will allow mitigation measures to be better targeted, and used to predict and verify their effectiveness” (GESAMP).  In 2015, then-President of the United States, Barak Obama enacted the Microbead Free Waters Act banning the commercial production of microbeads in personal care products in 2017 and banning their commercial sale in 2018; however, the policy has been criticized as poorly written and leaves a lot to be desired in order to be effective.  According to Dr. McGuire, the verbiage leaves concerns about what is actually going to be regulated, as it specifically calls out “rinse-off cosmetics that are intended to exfoliate or cleanse the human body or parts thereof… [however] there are some huge loopholes there” (McGuire).  Though it explicitly includes facial scrubs, body washes and scrubs, and toothpaste, there are many products containing microplastics that are not included in the language of the policy such as make-ups and deodorants, and McGuire states the biggest concern about the bill is that it does not define ‘microbead’ anywhere.  She is optimistic about some of the other countries jumping to action, though and expressed her content with the New Zealand policies that are in the works specifically.

Public Awareness and Behavior Change. In an interview with Dr. Maia McGuire of the Microbead Awareness Foundation in Florida, she cited public awareness as the number one component that will contribute to reducing microplastic pollution in the environment.  McGuire stated that awareness is a big facilitator for policy changes and a motivator for legislation, and commented that “we’re not going to get away from using plastic in a lot of different forms so it’s about being either something that’s regulated, legislated or something that people choose to do differently and awareness is key for either of those things to happen” (McGuire).  With increased awareness comes personal behavior changes to consciously using less plastic and participating in clean-up projects which not only represent educational opportunities of such issues but also increases and promotes pro-environmental behavior and can contribute to scientific research (GESAMP) (see Figures 2 and 3).  Additionally, Thompson’s article points out that a heavy consumption of plastic in the economy equates to an increased reliance on fossil fuels.Since 8% of the global oil production is currently used to make plastic items it seems clear that we urgently need to change the way we produce, use and dispose of plastic items” (Thompson 196). A promotion and emphasis on reduce, reuse and recycle, or furthermore refuse, reduce, reuse as Dr. McGuire suggested, will aid in reducing plastic use which will intrinsically reduce plastic waste generation.  The GESAMP Assessment affirms that “such action reduces our reliance on non-renewable reserves of oil and gas to produce plastics and reduces the need for waste management, for example via landfill” (GESAMP).


Figure 2 Author Amy Ebling with her husband and son at the Historic Ellicott City Earth Day Clean-up, Howard County Recreation and Parks 2016


Figure 3 Author Amy Ebling at the Masonville Cove Project Clean Stream, Inner Harbor Baltimore, MD 2017


Microplastic pollution throughout marine ecosystems is a complicated subject matter to explore.  While it is known that microplastic pollution is a market failure from overproduction of plastic products and a heavy anthropogenic reliance on plastic products, an effective and sufficient solution has yet to be discovered.  As stated in Duis and Coors’ article, “strategies should be developed to address the issue of nano-, micro- and macroplastics in the environment on a broad and global basis in order to avoid exceeding critical environmental threshold concentrations.”

(Duis and Coors). Additionally, the problem is as severely persistent as even if the global economy ceased to use and consume plastic today, microplastics would increase and persist throughout the environment for a long time to come in the future.  This is due to the fact that there is already so much plastic in the environment, and the constant fragmentation of macroplastics will continue to contribute to microplastic pollution problems for decades, if not centuries to come.

It is relatively agreed upon by marine experts and ecologists that policy, in conjunction with increased awareness and education will result in dramatic behavioral shifts. However, “a number of data gaps need to be filled and available environmental risk assessment procedures have to be adapted” (Duis and Coors) in order for policies and solutions to be sufficiently effective.  Combined policies, awareness, and education are presented as the most realistic and effective solution to microplastic pollution and the persistent and pervasive side effects experienced because of the concentrations and accumulation within ecosystems.  Improvements to microplastic pollution has the potential to benefit not only immediate organisms that are threatened but outreaching organisms throughout the trophic levels. Additionally, microplastic pollution clean-up efforts can result in enhanced recreational experienced by societies throughout the world, which has a direct impact on global economies such as tourism, fishing, and various industries.  While an effective solution has yet to be presented, global cooperation is required to adequately address this massive issue.








Works Cited

Alpert, Emily. “Plastic Pellets Blanket Hong Kong Beaches After Typhoon.” LA Times 6 August 2012: Web. <latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/08/plastic-pellets-blanket-hong-kong-beaches-like-snow-after-typhoon.html>.

Andrady, Anthony L. “Microplastics in the Marine Environment.” Marine Pollution Bulletin (2011): 1596-1605. Document.

Barboza, L.G.A and B.C.G. Gimenez. “Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Current Trends and Future Perspectives.” Marine Pollution Bulletin (2015): Web. <dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.06.008>.

Derraik, Jose G.B. “The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin (2002): 842–852. Document.

Duis, Karen and Anja Coors. “Microplastics in the aquatic and terrestrial environment: sources (with a specific focus on personal care products), fate and effects.” Environmental Sciences Europe (2016). <doi:10.1186/s12302-015-0069-y>.

GESAMP. Sources, Fate and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment. Environmental Assessment Report. London: International Maritime Organization, 2015.

H.R. 1321 – Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. 114th Congress. 28 December 2015.

Kostigen, Thomas M. “The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Discover 20 July 2008: Web. <discovermagazine.com/2008/jul/10-the-worlds-largest-dump>.

McGuire, Maia. PhD. UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant Agent Amy Ebling. 1 March 2017. Transcript.

Ministry for the Environment. Managing Microbeads in Personal Care Products: Consultation Document. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment, 2017.

National Ocean Service. “Microplastic Marine Debris.” n.d. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 17 April 2017. <marinedebris.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/MicroplasticsOnePager_0.pdf>.

Sul, Juliana A. Ivar do and Monica F. Costa. “The Present and Future of Microplastic Pollution in the Marine Environment.” Environmental Pollution (2014): 352-364. Document.

Thompson, Richard. “Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Sources, Consequences and Solutions.” Marine Anthropogenic Litter (2015): 185-200. Document.

Wright, Stephanie L., Richard C. Thompson and Tamara S. Galloway. “The Physical Impacts of Microplastics on Marine Organisms: A Review.” Environmental Pollution (2013): 483-492.

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