The missing 99%: why can’t we find the vast majority of ocean plastic?

The missing 99%: why can’t we find the vast majority of ocean plastic?

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: December 31, 2019 SNIP: Every year, 8m tons of plastic enters the ocean. Images of common household waste swirling in vast garbage patches in the open sea, or tangled up with whales and seabirds, have turned plastic pollution into one of the most popular environmental issues in the world. But for at least a decade, the biggest question among scientists who study marine plastic hasn’t been why plastic in the ocean is so abundant, but why it isn’t. What scientists can see and measure, in the garbage patches and on beaches, accounts for only a tiny fraction of the total plastic entering the water. So where is the other 99% of ocean plastic? Unsettling answers have recently begun to emerge. What we commonly see accumulating at the sea surface is “less than the tip of the iceberg, maybe a half of 1% of the total,” says Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “I often joke that being an ocean plastic scientist should be an easy job, because you can always find a bit wherever you look,” says Van Sebille. But, he adds, the reality is that our maps of the ocean essentially end at the surface, and solid numbers on how much plastic is in any one location are lacking. It is becoming apparent that plastic ends up in huge quantities in the deepest parts of the ocean, buried in sediment on the seafloor, and caught like clouds of dust deep in the water column. Perhaps most frighteningly, says Helge Niemann, a biogeochemist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea...
‘Everywhere we looked’: trillions of microplastics found in San Francisco bay

‘Everywhere we looked’: trillions of microplastics found in San Francisco bay

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: October 4, 2019 SNIP: The most comprehensive study to date of microplastics in California has turned up a mind-boggling amount of plastic particles in the San Francisco bay. An estimated 7tn pieces of microplastics flow into the San Francisco bay via stormwater drains alone, researchers discovered. Nearly half of the microscopic particles found in stormwater looked suspiciously like tiny fragments of car tires, which rainfall washes off the streets and into the ocean. Treated wastewater contributed an additional 17bn particles of plastic, according to the study. Researchers also found plastic in sediment collected from the bay and its many tributaries and inside the digestive tracts of fish. “It was basically everywhere we looked,” said Rebecca Sutton, an environmental scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a local institution that led the three-year, $1.1m research effort. [R]esearchers accounted for two types of debris: microplastics, which are particles identified by a laser as fragments of plastic, and microparticles, which are particles the researchers suspect to be plastic, but couldn’t identify as such with the laser. The fragments and fibers they analyzed included the remnants of plastic packaging and bottles, microscopic shreds of cigarette butts and fibers from clothing. Nearly half the particles found in stormwater were “these squishy black particles that we think might be from tires”, Sutton said. “But it’s really hard to get a definitive sense of where exactly it’s all coming from because there are so many sources of plastic pollution.” The study is “extremely comprehensive”, said Stefan Krause, a microplastics researcher at the University of Birmingham. Even as scientists and engineers strive to...
Milk? Sugar? Microplastics? Some tea bags found to shed billions of particles

Milk? Sugar? Microplastics? Some tea bags found to shed billions of particles

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: September 27, 2019 SNIP: Tea drinkers could be getting more than they bargained for in their brew, as a new study has found that a single plastic tea bag can shed billions of particles of microplastics. The researchers from McGill University in Canada have found that when plastic tea bags are steeped in a cup of almost boiling water (95C), the bag releases around 11.6bn microplastics and 3.1bn smaller nanoplastic particles into the cup. This amount is significantly higher than the estimated amount of microplastics particles consumed by a person in an entire year. According to research published earlier this year, the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic annually and breathes in a similar quantity. The researchers tested four different types of plastic commercial tea bags from shops and cafés in Montreal, which were cut open, washed and then steeped in near-boiling water for five minutes before being analysed by electron microscopes and spectroscopy. They found that a single bag released more than 11.6bn microplastics, which was “several orders of magnitude higher than plastic loads previously reported in other foods”, according to the study, which was published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, which the researchers defined as ranging from 100nm to 5mm in size, which are mostly created by the disintegration of plastic litter. Researchers have found microplastics in the air, soil, rivers and the deepest oceans around the world, as well as in tap and bottled water, seafood and beer. Microplastics were also found in human stool samples for the first time...
Monterey Bay is a Natural Wonder Poisoned with Microplastic

Monterey Bay is a Natural Wonder Poisoned with Microplastic

SOURCE: Wired, LAist, and Nature DATE: June 6, 2019 SNIP: Monterey Bay is one of the most beautiful and pristine-looking places on earth, but look below the surface and researchers have found evidence it’s teeming with microplastic. The tiny pieces are smaller than a grain of rice and have been discovered floating through water columns as deep as 3,800 feet and in the guts and discharge of different sea creatures. Today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, researchers present a torrent of horrifying findings about just how bad the plastic problem has become. For one, microplastic is swirling in Monterey Bay’s water column at every depth they sampled, sometimes in concentrations greater than at the surface of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Two, those plastics are coming from land, not local fishing nets, and are weathered, suggesting they’ve been floating around for a long while. And three, every animal the researchers found—some that make up the base of the food web in the bay—were loaded with microplastic. “What we found was that microplastic is actually pretty pervasive,” said Anela Choy, lead author and assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was a postdoc with MBRI at the time. “We found microplastics in 100 percent of our water samples and 100 percent of our animal samples that we looked at,” she said. The researchers found the amount of microplastic captured at the surface is about the same as it is down at 3,200 feet. But between 650 and 2,000 feet, the counts skyrocket. Scientists have suspected that ocean plastics aren’t necessarily concentrated at the surface, contrary to...
People eat at least 50,000 plastic particles a year, study finds

People eat at least 50,000 plastic particles a year, study finds

SOURCE: The Guardian and Environmental Science and Technology DATE: June 5, 2019 SNIP: The average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar quantity, according to the first study to estimate human ingestion of plastic pollution. The true number is likely to be many times higher, as only a small number of foods and drinks have been analysed for plastic contamination. The scientists reported that drinking a lot of bottled water drastically increased the particles consumed. Some of the best available data is on water, with bottled water containing 22 times more microplastic than tap water on average. A person who only drank bottled water would consume 130,000 particles per year from that source alone, the researchers said, compared with 4,000 from tap water. The health impacts of ingesting microplastic are unknown, but they could release toxic substances. Some pieces are small enough to penetrate human tissues, where they could trigger immune reactions. Microplastic pollution is mostly created by the disintegration of plastic litter and appears to be ubiquitous across the planet. Researchers find microplastics everywhere they look; in the air, soil, rivers and the deepest oceans around the world. They have been detected in tap and bottled water, seafood and beer. They were also found in human stool samples for the first time in October, confirming that people ingest the particles. The new research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, took the data from 26 previous studies that measure the amounts of microplastic particles in fish, shellfish, sugar, salt, beer and water, as well as in the air in...