By Ashar Ali
July 16, 2022
UPDATED 12:00 PM EST
[Image Credit: Anadolu Agency]
Fragments of plastic less than 5 mm in length are known as microplastics. To put things into perspective, a normal Paperclip measures 6 mm. Therefore we’re effectively talking about an invisible enemy here. That brings us back to our topic, what exactly are these things, and should we be worried?
There is no doubt that all types of plastics have been the nemesis of the environment ever since the production of plastics first started. Now if our Physics classes are to be believed, micro means smaller, right? So that should mean lesser danger? Then why should we be worried about microplastics when we have bigger issues to deal with, like the plastics themselves?
Well, that’s where things go south….
The effects microplastics have on us and our surroundings are not as microscopic. The presence of these fragments in rivers does not only decrease the biodiversity of the area but can also cause severe and in some cases irreparable ecological damage. Furthermore, microplastics have often been directly linked to human health issues, especially where river water is the major source of water for drinking and cooking.
The vastness of our world means getting an exact figure for microplastics in rivers is near impossible but figures suggest that anywhere between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans via rivers every year. A large proportion of this mass can be believed to be microplastics.
One question that immediately strikes the mind while discussing microplastics is “where do these come from?” A United States Coast Guard (USCG) study into microplastics in US rivers gives a deep insight into this topic. The study found that 70% of the microplastics were fibers that could have been sourced from synthetic textiles, diapers, and cigarettes. The remaining 30% constituted fragments, foams, films, and beads. The major sources of these are believed to be water bottles, styrofoam, bags, and wrappers respectively.
The good news is that like every other environmental problem we face, the issue of microplastics, too, has solutions. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has remained active in outlining the solutions to this crisis. Ban on single-use plastics, legislation on the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and changes in synthetic textile industries can help in diminishing the microplastics entering the rivers to a large extent.
XiaoZhi Lim “Microplastics are everywhere – but are they harmful?” Nature.com - Articles, News Feature, 04 May 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01143-3
Amanda Morris “ Microplastic pollution lingers in rivers years before entering oceans.” Northwestern Now - Stories, 12 Jan. 2022, https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2022/01/microplastic-pollution-linger-in-rivers-for-years-before-entering-oceans/
“Microplastics Pollution in the Huron River.” hrwc.org - Our Watershed, Threats, https://www.hrwc.org/our-watershed/threats/microplastics-pollution/
“Microplastics in wastewater: towards solutions.’’ UNEP.org - Story, Water, 20 Mar. 2020, https://www.hrwc.org/our-watershed/threats/microplastics-pollution/