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Microplastics in the Ocean

By: Sophia S.


Of the 10 million tons of plastic that end up in our oceans every year, only about 1% floats on the surface. This means that those huge garbage patches you see are only a small fraction of the plastic pollution issue. To add, most of what you’re seeing is only the large pieces. While these plastic bags, straws, water bottles, etc. are clearly harmful, they eventually degrade and split into tiny fragments called microplastics. These microplastics, whether intentionally created or simply tiny fragments of a whole, cause significant problems for marine life.

Microplastics are even in very deep sea water. Photo from: Tunatura/Getty


Since not all plastics have the same density and bacteria or algae tends to grow on them at different rates, they can sink to any level of the water column, letting them affect many populations. While in the water, microplastics, because of their minuscule size of 5mm or less, are easily mistaken for food. This leads to microplastics insertion into the food chain. For example, a zooplankton that ate a microplastic might be eaten by a tiny fish who’ll be eaten by a bigger fish and the cycle continues.


As animals consume these microplastics, their digestive tract can become blocked, diminishing their urge to eat and therefore decreasing the energy supply they rely on to escape predators. Consequently, the animal’s growth may be harmed due to it starving itself. Even when microplastics manage to be fully digested, the plastic debris can still leave behind toxic chemicals in the animal’s body that can disrupt the animal’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones. Affecting these hormones can have negative effects on reproduction and growth, putting the future of that species at risk. With microplastics being a growing issue and research continuing, scientists are still finding more consequences to letting these microplastics pollute our waters.


Though you may not realize it, direct sources of microplastics are everywhere in your life. They are incredibly popular in the cosmetics industry, as well as in detergents. Microplastics are even used in medicines and fertilizers for encapsulation and paints and coating for matting and scratch resistance. Even the clothing industry can use these tiny plastics for textiles and fabrics. After we consume these products and they are thrown or washed away, it is common for them to end up in oceans where they can have devastating effects. Being conscious of the ingredients of the products you purchase and reducing your overall plastic use can have a small, but mighty effect in reducing microplastics in our oceans.


Discussion Questions:

  • What are some sustainable alternatives to the plastic products you use everyday?

  • How could policy help combat the issues that microplastics cause?


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