“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a great mantra…except when you’re talking about plastic pollution. Devilishly tiny plastics, a.k.a. microplastics, are adding up to one massive problem in the world’s waterways – acting as a sponge for other pollutants, not to mention confusing and harming wildlife.

On this month’s EcoMyths/Worldview segment, we’ll find out how and why something so small can cause such a big fuss. We brought in Olga Lyandres, research manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and Allison Schutes, manager of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program for a tete-a-tete with Jerome McDonnell and our own Kate Sackman.

Microplastics 101

First, some perspective. Before the show, Olga showed the Worldview team a fairly nondescript bottle of microbeads. While they may look unassuming, these types of microplastics are especially insidious, because they lurk inside so many personal care products, from face scrub to toothpaste, Olga explained.

And when you wash the teensy plastic scrubbers off your face or spit ’em out with your toothpaste, down the drain they go—straight to the wastewater treatment facility, which is not equipped to remove them. So on the pearly pellets go, discharging into lakes, running down into streams, floating off into oceans…and contributing to the 10-20 billion pounds of plastics estimated to enter the world’s oceans each year, according to Allison.

By the way, though they’re the most hyped, microbeads aren’t the only kind of microplastics, which generally are defined as any plastic measuring smaller than 5 millimeters (just under a fifth of an inch). Other types include:

  • Fibers: Little strands of synthetic fibers, from fishing line to cigarette filters to polyester and fleece clothing, to name a few
  • Fragments: Big plastic trash doesn’t go away—it simply breaks down into teensy, irregularly shaped plastic particles.
  • Film: Thin, long pieces that may once have been food wrapping or plastic bags

So What?

The quick rap sheet on microplastics is that once they get out into our waters, they tend to act out, to put it lightly. First, Olga explained that they basically act as sponges, adsorbing other pollutants willy-nilly and moving them around the Great Lakes or wherever they happen to float. Second, Allison pointed out that wildlife often accidentally eat them, which can directly or indirectly affect animals as varied as small fish, turtles, and even whales.

Both experts clarified that the research on the implications of microplastics is still emerging, but they’ve pointed out some interesting studies. Consider:

Sherri Mason’s lab at SUNY Fredonia found plastic in the guts and intestines of 18 different species, including 17 fish, and one waterbird.
Some research shows that ingesting too much plastic can result in serious digestive issues. Albatross chicks, for instance, cannot regurgitate nor digest plastic debris they swallow, so it can fill up their stomachs such that they can no longer digest food.

Some evidence suggests that microplastics can make their way up the food chain, though this is still an early area of scientific inquiry.

Plus…precisely because they’re so small, microplastics are especially tricky and take “astronomical costs” to clean up, noted Allison. That’s one big reason it’s so important for folks to help keep plastic from entering the waste stream in the first place, whether it’s by avoiding products like microbead-laden facial scrub or participating in a cleanup.

Change Is a’Comin’

But wait, there’s good news! Olga and Allison are all about embracing individual impact, from swapping out plastic-studded face wash with apricot scrub to supporting legislation like Illinois’ phase-out of the manufacture and sale of microbeads in personal care products. At least nine other states now have similar legislation on the docket, as does Ontario, Canada, added Olga.

Though the topic can be infuriating, to use Jerome’s term, Allison cheered everyone up in the studio by reminding us that, “We all have a part to play in the solution.”

Nutshell: Small size doesn’t mean small impact—in terms of plastic pollution, that’s a bad thing. In terms of public involvement—it’s great! Microplastics may be a big problem, but we can each make a difference.

One Green Thing

One easy way to keep plastic—big and small—out of waterways is to choose reusable instead of single-use products. Boom!

As part of our partnership with Chicago Public Media/WBEZ, this content also appears on the Worldview page.

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