Research on microplastics in the maritime environment
A new study commissioned by Seas At Risk, an association of environmental organizations from across Europe, shows that microplastics in the marine environment originate from many sources and economic sectors, and have widespread environmental impacts, including climate implications. Published ahead of the upcoming European Commission EU Green Week 2021. The study by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology explores sources and solutions for microplastics.
“In view of the expected exponential increase in global plastic production and the subsequent release of microplastics into the environment, it is vital to urgently prevent this pollution from escalating and to avoid dramatic consequences. on marine biodiversity, global ecosystems and climate, ”says Frédérique Mongodin, Senior Marine Litter Policy Officer at Seas At Risk. “Because some types of plastics release more microplastics, toxic chemicals and GHGs than others, choosing the right type of plastic and additives during the design phase can significantly reduce microplastic pollution. However, only the adoption of mandatory and targeted measures upstream at EU level will allow the necessary adjustments in all sectors. “
Seas At Risk cites data which shows that global plastic production has been increasing exponentially since the 1950s. It stood at over 200 million tonnes produced in 2000, rising to 368 million tonnes in 2019. They cite a forecast that production will exceed 500 million tonnes by 2025 and 650 million tonnes by 2030.
Research examines sources of microplastics in the marine environment and finds that personal care products with added microplastics, such as glitter or microbeads found in scrubs, make up only 2% of the total microplastics released into the marine environment . They claim that the majority of microplastics in the ocean are unintentionally added microplastics and come from sources such as tire dust, synthetic textile fibers, city dust and marine paints. The additional microplastics resulting from degradation of larger plastic items at sea come from most of the economic sectors they report, including agriculture, construction, tourism, aquaculture, fishing and shipping.
Of all the plastics entering the ocean, the report says 94% end up on the seabed, where it will take centuries to degrade, releasing chemicals, microplastics and nanoplastics in the process, all of which are harmful to the ocean. both for marine life and ecosystem balance. . The GMIT study indicates that microplastics also have implications for the climate, both by contributing to the emission of GHGs and by reducing the mitigating effects of the ocean against climate change.
Once exposed to sunlight, certain types of plastics (primarily single-use plastics and packaging) undergo a process of gradual degradation and fragmentation. This releases GHGs, such as methane and ethylene. Methane contributes 34 times more greenhouse gas effects than carbon dioxide. With an expected 33-36% increase in plastic production by 2025, methane emissions are expected to exceed 100 million tonnes if no mitigation effort is implemented.
The report indicates that the most worrying environmental impacts of microplastics are contributing to the loss of biodiversity, with implications for marine food webs, and threatening the balance of ecosystems. In the study, GMIT researchers identified concerns about the ingestion of microplastics by marine organisms and the bioaccumulation of hazardous substances by marine flora and fauna.
Depending on their characteristics, some types of plastics emit a much higher amount of microplastics, toxic chemicals or GHG emissions compared to others. Therefore, the solutions proposed in the study aim to prevent the release of microplastics at the source.
They are calling for a ban on certain types of plastics that are proven to release a large number of microplastics, such as synthetic foam polymers used in packaging and boxes, as well as plastic mulch in agriculture and horticulture. They also say mandatory eco-design requirements should be set for textiles at the design stage to phase out the most problematic fabrics and additives. They also propose the establishment of a maximum threshold for the release of microplastics by tires into the environment.
The study says a ban on all non-essential single-use plastic products should be implemented to reduce microplastic pollution in the long run. Further steps should include the phasing out of potentially toxic additives and the creation of an open access database on plastic additives to provide information on the presence of chemicals in products.
Among the mandates they propose to governments to enact are for the containment of plastic production and recycling facilities to prevent the release of pellets as well as best practices for handling rules and regular training of personnel to prevent waste. shipping containers and fishing gear at sea this generates large amounts of secondary microplastics.
The full report and recommendations are available on the Seas At Risk website.
(Photo of microplastic by Florida Sea Grant, via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)