Tag Archives: microplastic

These impressive trees can absorb microplastics through their roots

We tend to associate microplastics just with the marine environment, but these small pieces of plastic are also accumulating in soils and at a higher level. Now, a group of researchers has found an unexpected solution. Birch trees, found in the Northern Hemisphere, were found to remediate the soils by absorbing microplastics through their roots.

Image credit: The researchers.

Microplastics are contaminants of growing concern. They originate from the breakdown of larger plastic and from the release of primary materials, which makes them easily transported in water, air, and soil and can accumulate and persist in the environment. Microplastics are everywhere, from the depths of the oceans to the top of Mount Everest.

Most research on the influence of microplastic has focused on how they interact with plants and animals in seas and oceans. While less obvious than in oceans, microplastics also accumulate in soils at levels between four to 23 times higher than in marine ecosystems, either being transported through the atmospheric or by direct deposition.

Microplastics alter the properties of the soil and can also affect plant growth and microbial community. However, not much is known about how microplastics interact with higher-order terrestrial plants such as trees. Recent studies have shown, for example, that microplastics are taken up by agricultural plants such as wheat.

As part of an interdisciplinary project, a group of German researchers has shown that longer-lived woody plants, specifically birch trees (Betula), can absorb and store microplastics in their tissue. The roots of this tree species grow close to the soil surface, where microplastic is the highest, making it a good choice for a study.

“The uptake rate of microplastics and the effects on the short- and long-term health of the trees still need to be studied. But this pilot study suggests birch has real potential for long-term soil remediation solutions – including reducing the number of microplastics in soil and possibly water,” Kat Austen, the lead author, said in a statement.

Birch trees and microplastics

Birch trees are a group of 40 species of ornamental and timber trees and shrubs, generally found in cool regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They have been used to remediate polluted land in the past as they can sequester and store pollutants and heavy metals in their tissues. Plus, they were found in previous studies to be very good at reducing air pollution. So it makes a lot of sense to see if they can help with microplastics.

Longitudinal cross-section showing microplastic particles inside a birch lateral root in a one-year-old birch tree. Image credit: The researchers.

For their study, the researchers added microplastic beads with fluorescent dyes to the soil of potted birch trees, which enabled them to see where the microplastic pieces were going. After five months, they analyzed the root system using fluorescence and confocal laser scanning microscopy, finding microplastics in different sections of the root system in between 5% and 17% in the experimental trees — enough to show that birch trees can be helpful with microplastic bioremediation.

“These results give a strong indication for the uptake and incorporation of soil-derived microplastic into juvenile birch roots and suggest that further investigations addressing the rate of uptake of microplastic and its implications for long term tree health are necessary to determine if birch trees are suitable microplastic remediators.,” the researchers wrote.

However, this doesn’t mean that we suddenly have a solution for microplastics pollution. If we want to truly address this problem, we need to tackle it at its root and think about producing less plastic in the first place.

The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

The microplastics we’re ingesting are likely affecting our cells

We know microplastics are a big environmental problem and that they can now be found almost everywhere, including our food and water — and inside our bodies. But just how harmful are they? Since it’s a problem we’ve only recently started to realize, we don’t know yet — but the data is coming in, and it doesn’t look too good. At least in a petri dish, microplastics have the potential to cause significant damage to human cells in the laboratory, a new study found.

Researchers look for microplastics in a beach. Image credit: Flickr / Laura.

The study is the first to quantify the levels of microplastics (plastic particles measuring less than five millimeters) that may lead to harmful effects in human cells.

“This is the first-time scientists have attempted to quantify the effects of the levels of microplastics on human cells using a statistical analysis of the available published studies,” Evangelos Danopoulos, lead author and PhD student, said in a statement. “We are seeing reactions including cell death and allergic reactions as potential effects.”

Not only are microplastics everywhere already, but the contamination is expected to rise as plastic production and use around the world also increase. Within a century, the ecological risks of microplastics could be widespread in ecosystems across the world. So researchers are trying to understand just how dangerous these microplastics really are.

Exposure and contamination

Humans have two main routes of exposure to microplastics: ingestion and inhalation; we either ingest or inhale microplastics — and concerningly, both seem to be widespread. The presence of microplastics has been verified in human lung tissue, placenta, and colectomy samples.

Danopoulos and his team first reviewed a set of 17 previous studies that looked at the toxicological impact of microplastics on human cell lines. This allowed them to compare the level of microplastics consumed by people through polluted seafood, table salt, and drinking water with the level at which damage is caused to human cells.  

They found that four specific types of harm to human cells (cell death, damage to cell membranes and allergic response) were directly caused by the microplastic that people eat. The study also showed that microplastics with an irregular shape cause more cell death than spherical ones. Most laboratory studies focus on spherical ones. At the levels already found inside human bodies, these particles seem to be causing significant cellular damage.

“Our analysis of the data showed that cell viability depends on the shape of the microplastics. Irregularly shaped microplastics, which are the majority found in the environment, are more hazardous than spherical,” Danopoulos said. “So far, most toxicology studies have been testing spherical microplastics. There needs to be a shift.”

For the researchers, the findings show that we are eating microplastics at levels consistent with harmful effects on our cells, which could then trigger other health effects. Nevertheless, he highlighted the high level of uncertainty regarding how ingested microplastics are excreted from the body – crucial to better understand the true risk that microplastics pose to our health.

The study was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. 

Minerals from tap water may be protecting us against microplastics

That dark brown color on your kettle might actually be a sign that you are not ingesting microplastics, according to a new study. Researchers found that tap water generates a natural protective shield against microplastics thanks to the elements and minerals that in contains, preventing us from indirectly ingesting very tiny pieces of plastic.

Image credit: Flickr / Oregon University

Microplastics are now pretty much everywhere. They’ve been detected in wastewater, food, air, marine water and drinking water — both tap and bottled. Previous studies have suggested that we could be eating about as much as 5 grams of microplastic ever week, which is the equivalent a credit card we’re ingesting — every week.

The single largest source of plastic ingestion is water, both bottled and tap. This is a problem all over the world, though some areas have it worse than others — for instance, there’s twice as much plastic in the US or India than in European or Indonesian water. These small plastic particles enter freshwater environments from surface run-off and wastewater effluent, but also from combines sewer overflows and degraded plastic waste, among others. 

However, our understanding of this process may be a bit skewed, according to researchers from Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. They argue studies that have investigated microplastics release only used forms of pure water, which is only present in a laboratory and doesn’t consider the ions and impurities that are part of tap water. These impurities could be making a big difference, they note.

“It is well known that plastics can degrade and release microplastics, which can get into the environment and be consumed by humans. Our research shows that many items such as plastic kettles, which are repeatedly used with tap water, can develop over time a protective skin that prevents the release of microplastics entirely,” John Boland, co-author, said in a statement.

Understanding microplastics

Boland and the team of researchers explained that tap water is not 100% pure H20. Instead, it has trace elements and minerals. The list includes calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, selenium and zinc, among others. This also variates from country to country, with different standards being implemented.

Including these trace elements and minerals makes the degradation of plastics in tap water completely different. Instead of the plastic falling apart, the minerals coat the plastic and prevent any kind of degradation, so the product becomes microplastic-free, according to the study’s findings. Another reason to keep drinking your tap water then.

For example, having an old kettle with a dark brown color can actually be a good thing, the researchers argued. This brown layer is copper oxide that forms from the copper minerals in the tap water, which also comes from the copper pipes that your house likely has. It’s a perfect combination to protect your kettle and yourself from awful microplastics.

But this doesn’t mean we’ll have to wait for the kettle to build up that protective shield. These might eventually be manufactured in a laboratory and applied to the kettle or any similar appliance, and that’s what the researchers want to work on next. For Boland, the findings show nature is pointing us to solutions to the plastics problem. 

The paper was published in the journal Chemical Engineering. 

We can now track ocean microplastics from space, by looking at how winds and water interact

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) have developed a new approach to tracking microplastics in ocean waters, anywhere in the world, on a daily basis. This relies on satellites from the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), which can provide a global view of the seas or zoom in on particular areas for a high-resolution look.

Image via Pixabay.

The team says this approach is a major improvement over current options, as most tracking methods today rely on field reports from plankton trawlers — which are unreliable. While there are still unknowns, the technique seems reliable so far.

Plastic and small

“We’re still early in the research process, but I hope this can be part of a fundamental change in how we track and manage microplastic pollution,” said Chris Ruf, the Frederick Bartman Collegiate Professor of Climate and Space Science at U-M, principal investigator of CYGNSS and senior author on a newly published paper on the work.

Microplastics, as the name suggests, are very small pieces of plastic. They’re either produced like this for use in products like exfoliants, or result from the breakdown of larger plastics. An estimated eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, and, eventually, they all degrade into microplastics. Since they’re hard to biodegrade, these particles can travel hundreds of thousands of miles on ocean currents, harming sea life and marine ecosystems as they go.

Accurately tracking microplastic movements is quite difficult, mostly due to how small they are. The new approach developed at U-M draws on CYGNSS, a constellation of satellites launched in 2016 to monitor weather patterns at the heart of large storms (and thus better predict their severity).

In order to track the microplastics in the sea, the team looks at local ocean surface roughness — a characteristic that CYGNSS was already designed to measure, using on-board radars. These are meant to allow researchers to calculate wind speeds inside hurricanes, but the team adapted the method to help them estimate microplastic content in the water.

“We’d been taking these radar measurements of surface roughness and using them to measure wind speed, and we knew that the presence of stuff in the water alters its responsiveness to the environment,” Ruf said. “So I got the idea of doing the whole thing backward, using changes in responsiveness to predict the presence of stuff in the water.”

Using independent wind speed measurements (supplied by NOAA — the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the authors searched for stretches of the ocean that seemed less rough than they should be, considering local wind speeds. Then, they drew on field reports  from plankton trawlers to estimate local microplastic content, and then ocean current models in order to estimate which direction these would flow towards.

All in all, they report that there’s a strong correlation between areas that are ‘too smooth’ and those that have higher levels of microplastics. These changes in surface texture are likely not caused by the microplastics themselves, but by the surfactants they contain. Surfactants are a chemical family which includes several oily and soapy compounds, which got their name because they lower the surface tension of liquids they’re mixed into. The two are often released together or accumulate as they have similar behaviors in the ocean, so they travel and collect in similar ways.

“Areas of high microplastic concentration, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, exist because they’re located in convergence zones of ocean currents and eddies. The microplastics get transported by the motion of the water and end up collecting in one place,” Ruf said. “Surfactants behave in a similar way, and it’s very likely that they’re acting as sort of a tracer for the microplastics.”

The authors are now working on proving their approach, collaborating with their colleagues at the  Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab to better understand the relationship between water surface roughness and the levels of microplastics / surfactants it contains.

“We can see the relationship between surface roughness and the presence of microplastics and surfactants, so the goal now is to understand the precise relationship between the three variables, as well as the reasons behind them,” Pan said. “The wave tank and its ultrasonic sensors enable us to focus on those relationships by taking measurements under very precisely monitored wave, surfactant and microplastic conditions.”

As for the results we have available so far, the team reports that microplastic levels in the ocean seem to vary by season. In the Northern Hemisphere, they peak during June and July, while in the Southern Hemisphere they peak between January and February. Levels were generally lower during the summer months for both hemispheres, likely due to the influence of stronger water currents driving some of them to greater depths.

The paper “Toward the Detection and Imaging of Ocean Microplastics With a Spaceborne Radar” has been published in the journal IEEE Transactions of Geoscience and Remote Sensing.

Fish have been eating plastic since the 1950s. And it’s getting worse

Every day, fish around the world’s ocean eat microplastics — small, barely visible pieces of plastic that are formed when larger plastic objects like food containers break down into smaller bits. This has been going on for a while, but researchers weren’t exactly sure how long.

Now, researchers at the Loyola University Chicago looked at the guts of freshwater fish preserved in museum collections. They found that fish have been eating microplastics since the 1950s and that the concentration in their guts has only increased over time. 

Image credit: Flickr / Peter Corbett

“For the last 10 or 15 years it’s kind of been in the public consciousness that there’s a problem with plastic in the water. But really, organisms have probably been exposed to plastic litter since plastic was invented, and we don’t know what that historical context looks like,” Tim Hoellein, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Previous studies have shown that eating microplastics can cause aneurysms and reproductive changes in fish, as well as affect the cognitive performance of hermit crabs and weaken the physical performance of mussels. There’s also evidence of microplastics travelling up the food chain and having potential effects on humans. We’re not sure just how bad microplastics are, but they’re almost certainly not good for you.

Hoellein and his team wanted to understand how microplastics have built up in the ocean over the past century and what that meant for the fish of the past. They realized the best place to go was Chicago’s Field Museum, where around two million fish specimens are preserved in alcohol and stored in an underground collection.

They focused on four species in particular: largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides​), channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), sand shiners (Notropis stramineus), and round gobies (Neogobius melanostomus). The four of them have records dating from 2017 back to 1900. The researchers also collected fresh samples of the species for the study.

“We would take these jars full of fish and find specimens that were sort of average, not the biggest or the smallest, and then we used scalpels and tweezers to dissect out the digestive tracts,” Loren Hou, the paper’s lead author, said in a statement. “We tried to get at least five specimens per decade.”

To actually find the plastic in the fishes’ guts, the researchers treated the digestive tracts with hydrogen peroxide – a substance that breaks down the organic matter but leaves plastics intact. Then they also used microscopes to identify the materials with suspiciously smooth edges that might be indicative of microplastics. 

The findings showed that the amount of microplastics in the fishes’ guts increased significantly over time as more plastic was manufactured and built up in the ecosystem. There were no plastic particles before mid-century. But when plastic manufacturing was industrialized in the 1950s, the concentrations skyrocketed. 

While the researchers didn’t look at how eating these microplastics affected the fish, they wanted over digestive tract changes and increased stress — as seen in previous studies. They hope their findings will serve as a wakeup call to change our relationship with plastic and argued the purpose of their work is to contribute to solutions. 

“Microplastics can come from larger objects being fragmented, but they’re often from clothing. Whenever you wash a pair of leggings or a polyester shirt, tiny little threads break off and get flushed into the water supply. It’s plastic on your back, and that’s just not the way that we’ve been thinking about it,” said Hoellein in a statement. 

The study was published in the journal Ecological Applications.

We can stop thousands of tons of pollution from reaching the ocean — just by changing our laundry habits

Every day, some 13,000 tons of microfibers are released into European waters — that’s equivalent to two garbage trucks of small textile fibers in Europe alone.

According to a new study, a third of it could be stopped if we’d just use a different setting on our washing machines. Protip: cooler and faster wash cycles.

Image credits: Annie Spratt.

In recent years, microbeads have received a lot of attention as a source of pollution. Increasingly, researchers have found these small plastic particles do a lot of environmental damage, especially when they enter the water streams. But microbeads aren’t the plastic fish in this pollution ocean.

Scientists have speculated that microfibers can be just as dangerous as microbeads, if not more so.

Better washing

Every time you wash your clothes, it’s more than stains that get removed: thousands of tiny microfibers are released into the water, reaching the sewage, rivers, and ultimately, the oceans.

Researchers from Northumbria University partnered with Procter & Gamble to carry a study into the environmental impact of microfibers from laundry. They set up a system to measure how many microfibers are released in every washing cycle. This forensic analysis showed that, on average, 114 mg of microfibers are released for every kilogram of fabric washed during a standard washing cycle.

Image credits: Northumbria University.

That seems like a small amount, but considering the tens of billions of washing cycles carried out every year, it adds up to 12,709 tons in 23 European countries alone (while the study was carried out in Europe, there’s no reason why other areas wouldn’t produce just as much pollution).

But there’s a good side to this story: the researchers found that there’s a simple way to reduce microfiber pollution — colder, shorter programs. A 30-minute 15 C wash cycle produces a 30% reduction in the amount of microfibers released, compared to a standard 85-minute 40 C cycle.

The study also showed that larger wash loads lead to a decrease in the release of microfibers. Simply put, if you want to be more eco-friendly, wait until you have a full load to turn on the washing machine.

Other findings of the study suggest that new clothes release more microfibers than old clothes, and fabric softener has no significant effect on this release.

The researchers also make another positive recommendation: washing machines could be equipped with special filters to prevent the microfibers from reaching the oceans. This won’t fix the problem, but it would be a good start.

Study author Neil Lant comments::

“This study has proven that consumer choices in the way they do their laundry can have a significant and immediate impact on microfibre pollution. These won’t eliminate the issue but could achieve a meaningful short-term reduction while other solutions such as washing machine filters and low-shedding clothing are developed and commercialized.”

“Finding an ultimate solution to the pollution of marine ecosystems by microfibres released during laundering will likely require significant interventions in both textiles manufacturing processes and washing machine appliance design.”

Filters can make a world of a difference

Image credits: University of Plymouth.

Another recent study reports that fiber-catching devices can be fitted into washing machines, significantly reducing the amount of macroscopic and microscopic fibers released into the environment.

A study conducted at the University of Plymouth compared the efficiency of six different devices, ranging from prototypes to commercially available products. The most successful ones have an efficacy of 80%, which can make a major difference.

“Fibers from clothing are among the key sources of microplastics, and companies are inventing ways which claim to reduce the amount of fibers which enter wastewater. We wanted to see how effective they were both in catching fibers, but also stopping clothes from shedding them in the first place. Our results show there is a huge variety between the devices available, with some significantly reducing the number of fibers released,” says Research Fellow and National Geographic Explorer Dr. Imogen Napper.

Researchers washed three different synthetic fabric types (100% polyester, 100% acrylic, and a 60% polyester/40% cotton blend) to represent a typical mixed load. The efficiency of different devices varied from 21% to 78%.

This is something that we, as consumers, must also be aware of, says Professor Richard Thompson, a co-author of the study. Companies should also take responsibility and deploy measures to limit the amount of microfibers clothes release into the environment.

“Too often, the quest for fast fashion and market pressures means that appropriate environmental considerations are being sacrificed. If we are to achieve widespread and lasting change, it is essential for scientists to provide the independent evidence that demonstrates the scale of the problem as well as any potential solutions. Some of the devices we tested can undoubtedly reduce the fibers generated through the laundry process, but perhaps the most overarching change would be to design garments to last longer and shed less fibers in the first place.”

Ten bloodcurdling microplastic facts we’ve recently learned

Millions of tons of plastic enter marine and terrestrial ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. They can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making them easy to be ingested by sea creatures. These very small pieces take centuries or more to truly go away.

Image credit: Flickr / Oregon State University

These very small pieces of plastic are literally all over the place, even in some of the world’s most seemingly inaccessible regions. They’re in the oceans, inside animals, even inside you. Scientists are frequently finding them in the most remote regions of the world such as the chilling Arctic sea. Studies have shown we are actually eating tons of them, about 70,000 microplastic particles every year.

However, it seems like the more we learn about microplastics, the more questions arise. Their effects on marine life and even on humans aren’t fully clear yet, with researchers trying to get a better idea with further studies. In the meantime, here are some surprising facts about microplastics that we have recently learned.

1. Microplastics are all over the seafloor

The world’s seafloor is filled with over 14 million tons of microplastics, broken down from the masses of rubbish entering the oceans every year, according to a study. It’s the first global estimate of sea-floor microplastics and the amount registered is 25 times greater than that shown by previous localized studies.

The researchers used a robotic submarine to collect samples of deep-sea sediments up to 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) deep from six sites in the Great Australian Bight, 380 kilometers off the coast. They analyzed 51 samples and found an average of 1.26 microplastic pieces per gram of sediment, much more than previous studies.

2. Washing clothes is releasing microplastics into the environment

Researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the microplastics in the Arctic seawater were polyester fibers, which are most likely coming from textiles manufacturing and household laundry. They gathered near-surface seawater samples from a 19,000-kilometer section from the city of Tromso in Norway to the North Pole.

The researchers looked at samples up to a depth of around 1,000 meters. All had microplastics except one, which shows the extent of the problem. Synthetic fibers accounted for 92% of plastic pollution. Of this, 73% was polyester, which resembles the dimensions and chemical identities of synthetic textiles, the researchers argued.

3. They’re everywhere: from the deep oceans to Everest

Microplastics are associated with ocean pollution, but a study showed that the tiny plastic fragments are literally everywhere, including the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. Researchers analyzed snow and stream samples from Mount Everest, finding the first evidence of microplastic pollution on a mountain.

The research revealed significant quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene fibers. It’s no coincidence that the same materials are embedded in the outdoor clothing climbers use, as well as tents and climbing ropes. The highest concentration of microplastics was found around Base Camp, an area at the foot of Mt. Everest.

4. Your coffee comes with a side of microplastics

A study found that plastic cups might be leaking microplastics into your coffee or tea. An average person drinking three regular cups of tea or coffee daily, in a paper cup, would be ingesting 75,000 tiny microplastic particles. Disposable paper cups are made of 90–95% paper, and the remaining is a hydrophobic plastic film.

The researchers poured hot water into the disposable paper cups and allowed it to sit for 15 minutes. The water was then analyzed for the presence of microplastics as well as additional ions that may have leached into the liquid from the paper cup. They also looked at the changes experienced in the properties of the plastic films of the cup.

Image credit: Flickr / Magnus Franklin

5. They’re even in the sea breeze

A study suggests that plastic particles can transfer from seawater to the atmosphere and get carried away by the breeze. Researchers found fragments of plastics in sea spray, suggesting that they are ejected from the seawater in the form of “bubbles.” They captured water droplets from sea spray at Mimizan beach in Aquitaine, using a “cloud catcher.”

The microplastics in sea spray ranged between 5 and 140 micrometers in size. The researchers estimated that up to 136,000 tons of microplastics could be blown onshore by sea spray every year. This microplastic is the result of mismanaged waste that comes from the terrestrial environment.

6. Researchers found microplastics in the placentas of unborn babies

It’s a true testament that microplastics really are everywhere. Plastic particles were found in the placentas from four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births, a study showed. Only about 4% of each placenta was analyzed, however, suggesting that the total number of microplastics could actually be much higher.

While the health impact of the microplastics in the body is still unknown, the researchers believe the particles could bring dangerous chemicals into the body – leading to long-term damage or upsetting the fetus’s developing immune system. The particles are likely to have been consumed or breathed in by the mothers, the researchers argued.

7. The US and the UK, largely behind pollution

Not every country produces the same level of plastic pollution — per capita, the US and the UK are producing more plastic waste per person than any other major country, according to a study. The researchers found the US produces the most plastic waste in total and its citizens rank as high as third in the world in contributing to plastic pollution.

Using data from 2016, the latest available, the study found more than half of the plastic collected for recycling in the US was shipped abroad, mostly to countries already struggling to manage plastic waste effectively. The researchers said years of exporting had masked the US’s enormous contribution to plastic pollution, calling for larger efforts by the US.

8. A crustacean could break down microplastics in days

A small crustacean from Ireland was found to fragment plastics into tiny particles in just a matter of days, much faster than previously estimated, a study showed. This highlights the potential of freshwater and marine species to rapidly fragment microplastics and offers a potential solution to this plastic crisis.

Researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland found that a “very common” crustacean, called Gammarus duebeni, which can be found on Irish streams, can break down microplastics (smaller than 5 mm) in less than 100 hours and turn them into nanoplastics — pieces that measure less than one micrometer. However, it’s still unclear whether this has any significance for microplastics at a planetary scale.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

9. Microplastics are polluting agricultural land

Microplastics are contaminating agricultural land as well as the oceans, affecting the interaction between the soil and the plants, according to a recent study. The amount varied according to the agricultural practice used by the farmers and probably affects all soil organisms. Soils from outside and inside a greenhouse had the largest amount.

The potential sources of microplastics in the agricultural environments include sewage sludge, compost, irrigation of wastewater, road runoff, atmospheric deposition, and plastics in agricultural practice. Microplastic can also come from organic fertilizer from biowaste. Between 107,000 to 730,000 tons of microplastics are dumped onto agricultural soils in the U.S. and Europe every year, previous studies showed.

10. Like clams? You’re probably eating plastics too

Seriously, there’s no escaping microplastics, at least not at our current polluting behavior. Researchers from Portland State University in the US looked at the concentration of microplastic in razor clams collected from eight beaches in the Olympic National Park in Washington, after surveying clam harvesters. Then, they estimated the annual microplastic exposure of those eating them.

During the study, the researchers found 799 suspected microplastics in 138 clam samples, 99% of which were microfibers. Each clam had seven pieces of plastic each on average. Those obtained from the Kalaloch Beach, the northernmost site, had significantly more microplastics than clams from the other seven sites.

Planting plastics: study finds a growing amount of microplastics in the agricultural soil

Microplastics are contaminating agricultural land as well as the oceans, affecting the interaction between the soil and the plants. The amount varied according to the agricultural practice used by the farmers and probably affects all soil organisms.

Image credit: Flickr / State of Israel

Over time, plastic items in the ocean can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. They can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making them easy to be ingested by sea creatures. Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years.

But while the impact of ocean microplastics has been at the focus of researchers for the past few years, not that much attention has been placed on the microplastics that are accumulating on land — including agricultural areas. A study estimated that 107,000 to 730,000 tons of microplastics are dumped onto agricultural soils in the U.S. and Europe every year.

The potential sources of microplastics in the agricultural environments include sewage sludge, compost, irrigation of wastewater, road runoff, atmospheric deposition, and plastics in agricultural practice. Microplastic can also come from organic fertilizer from biowaste, as several studies have recently shown.

It is estimated that 79% of 6.3 billion tons of the total plastic waste generated in 2015 accumulated in landfills or the natural environment and 7% of the plastics produced globally were utilized for agriculture. Plastic mulching, which covers a large part of the European agricultural surface, has grown rapidly in recent years worldwide. Polyethylene films have also been widely used in greenhouses and seem to be contributing to microplastic pollution.

A group of researchers from Incheon National University in Korea wanted to explore how abundant microplastics are in different types of soils based on the agricultural practice employed, something that hasn’t been thoroughly explored. Moreover, they wanted to see whether only external sources of microplastics were responsible for soil pollution.

“Most studies have focused on the marine environment, but substantial amounts of microplastics can be generated in the agricultural environment via weathering and fragmentation of plastic products used in agricultural practices. We hoped to find out the amount of microplastics in Korean agricultural soils,” Seung-Kyu Kim, lead researcher, said in a statement.

The researchers looked at four soil types corresponding to different agricultural practices: soils from outside and inside a greenhouse, mulching, and rice field soil. They collected the samples from rural farmlands during the dry season so to minimize the effect of non-agricultural sources of microplastics. They only considered microplastics in the size range between 0.1 to 5 millimeters.

The soils from outside and inside a greenhouse had the highest average microplastic abundance, the study showed, while the lowest content was in mulching. Looking at each type of microplastics, fibers and sheets were the most common ones. All soil samples except from the one inside a greenhouse had a major contribution from sheets, which suggests potential internal sources of microplastics.

The researchers hope that their findings can help to understand the growing role of the agricultural environment as a source of microplastic. This could lead to establishing efficient management strategies to tackle microplastics. Future studies should focus on the contribution of the individual sources of microplastics and their effect on soil properties, which cascade throughout the entire ecosystem.

The study was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

The Arctic is packed with microplastics, and a lot of them are polyester fibers

By simply washing your clothes, you might be flooding the oceans with plastic pollution, a new study showed. Researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the microplastics in the Arctic seawater were polyester fibers, which are most likely coming from textiles manufacturing and household laundry.

Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. They can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making them easy to be ingested by sea creatures.

These very small pieces of plastic are literally all over the place, even on some of the world’s most seemingly unaccessible regions. Scientists are frequently finding them in the most remote regions of the world such as the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain or the chilling Arctic sea. But questions remain regarding where this severe plastic contamination is actually coming from.

Researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Ocean Wise conservation group sampled seawater from the Arctic and found that synthetic fibers accounted for 92% of the plastic pollution. Of this, 73% was polyester, which resembles the dimensions and chemical identities of synthetic textiles.

“The striking conclusion here is that we now have strong evidence that homes in Europe and North America are directly polluting the Arctic with fibers from laundry (via wastewater discharge),” lead author Peter Ross told AFP, adding that ocean currents are playing a big role in moving the fibers northwards to the Arctic.

Ross and his team gathered near-surface seawater samples from a 19,000-kilometer section from the city of Tromso in Norway to the North Pole, through the Canadian Arctic, and into the Beaufort Sea. They looked at samples up to a depth of around 1,000 meters. All had microplastics except one, which shows the extent of the problem.

The researchers worked with microscopy and infrared analysis to identify and measure the microplastics. They found almost three times more microplastic particles in the eastern Arctic compared to the west, which supports the idea that the polyester fibers could be arriving at the east of the region by the Atlantic.

Ocean Wise has done tests on washing machines in the past, finding that a single item of clothing can release millions of fibers during a normal domestic wash. They also warned that wastewater treatment plants often don’t catch the plastic fibers, with households in the US and Canada releasing almost 900 tons of microfibers per year.

“The textile sector can do much to design more sustainable clothing, including by designing clothes that shed less,” Ross told AFP. Governments have to make sure wastewater treatment plants have installed technologies to remove microplastics, while households should choose products with more environmentally-friendly fabrics, he added.

A study in 2019 found as many as 10,000 microplastics per liter of snow in the Arctic. Being small and lightweight, the microplastics are easily blown by winds which transport them over long distances through the atmosphere. Finally, they’re washed out of the atmosphere by rain or snow. This means no place on the planet is spared from our plastic pollution.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ate any clams recently? You’ve might have also had a side of microplastics

Whether we realize it or not, microplastics are creeping into every place and organism in the world. These very small pieces of plastic are all over the place, with scientists finding them even in the most remote regions of the world. The most recent example are razor clams in the sparsely populated coast of Washington.

Image credit: Flickr / ConwaySuz

Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making it easy to be ingested by all sorts of sea creature — including one that doesn’t move.

Researchers from Portland State University in the US looked at the concentration of microplastic in razor clams collected from eight beaches in the Olympic National Park in Washington, after surveying clam harvesters. Then, they estimated the annual microplastic exposure of those eating them.

Plastic is everywhere

The razor clam (Siliqua patula) is found on Pacific beaches, on the western coast of North America, from Alaska to southern California. In the State of Washington, razor clams rely on the rich coastal waters to settle and grow, and they’re fortunate enough to not be around too many settlements. They are co-managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and by tribal governments living in the area.

The species attracts thousands of visitors to the Olympic Coast’s shores annually, as they try their luck at clamming during one or more recreational fishery openers. The recreational fishery injects what are usually sleepy coastal towns with visitors, filling hotels and restaurants and bringing millions of dollars to the economy.

During the study, the researchers found 799 suspected microplastics in 138 clam samples, 99% of which were microfibers. Each clam had seven pieces of plastic each on average. Those obtained from the Kalaloch Beach, the northernmost site, had significantly more microplastics than clams from the other seven sites.

The researchers didn’t investigate the reasons behind one location having more microplastics than the others, but Britta Baechler, the study’s lead author, said there are no significant differences in land cover types between Kalaloch and the other sites. However, Kalaloch is the closest in the proximity of all sites to the Seattle metropolitan area.

Baechler and her team compared whole clams (minimally processed as if being consumed by an animal predator) and cleaned clams, gutted, cleaned of sand debris and grit, prepared as if being eaten by a person. They found that in cleaned clams the number of microplastics was reduced by half, but was still present.

This is some consolation for people, as 88% of the 107 respondents to the survey done by the researchers said they clean clams before eating them. But it’s bad news for ocean predators, who eat the clams without cleaning them — and subsequently, for people who would eat these predators. This creates a chain of microplastics from the clams to other marine organisms.

The survey allowed the researchers to estimate the average amount of clams eaten per meal and the number of meals with clams eaten every year. They combined this data with the average number of microplastics per clam and estimated the number of microplastics that clam consumers were exposed to per year.

Those that clean their claims before eating them consume between 60 and 3,070 microplastics per year, while those who eat them whole without removing the guts, gills, and other organs consume between 120 and 6,020 microplastics a year. Still, the impact of this on human health isn’t clear yet.

“Our estimates of microplastic exposure from this single seafood item are, for context, far lower than what we likely take in from inhalation, drinking bottled water and other sources, but no amount of plastic in our marine species or seafood items is desirable,” Bachler, a member of Ocean Conservancy, said in a statement.

The presence of microplastics in Washington’s coastal environment and in the food webs raises concern about the potential for ecological harm to Pacific razor clams, their predators, and innumerable other marine species, the researchers said. They urged to address the transmission of microplastics to the marine environment.

Still, this is an enormous task. A study from earlier this year the world’s seafloor is filled with 14 million tons of microplastics, broken down from the masses of rubbish entering the oceans every year. This was 25 times greater than previous estimations from localized studies around the world.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Coffee with a side of microplastics: paper cups likely leach plastic into your cup of joe

For people who have their coffee on the go, paper cups have become the preferred go-to choice. They’re lightweight, easy to handle, and cheap, but there’s a catch: they’re coated with plastic. This actually makes them non-recyclable and non-biodegradable (and is the reason why they don’t melt).

Now, researchers have found another reason to ditch them: they might be leaking plastic into your coffee.

Image credit: Flickr / Magnus Franklin

Disposable paper cups are made of 90–95% paper, and the remaining 5–10% is a hydrophobic plastic film. Mostly, the interior layer is made of Polyethylene (PE). Studies have shown in the past that that harmful chemicals and substances can leach from paper into the food or drink meant for human consumption.

So far, concerns regarding leaching of microplastics from these food packaging materials have rarely been addressed or quantified by researchers. Microplastics have been identified in many food substances like salt, branded milk, fish and other seafood, and tea from teabags, with still unknown consequences for our health.

“Microplastics act as carriers for contaminants like ions, toxic heavy metals such as palladium, chromium and cadmium, as well as organic compounds that are hydrophobic,” said Sudha Goel, one of the authors of the study in a statement. “When ingested regularly over time, the health implications could be serious.”

With this in mind, Sudha and other researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT) decided to identify the types of plastic layers used in paper cups and evaluate the changes in their mechanical, physical, and chemical properties when they come in contact with hot liquid. They also quantified the microplastic load in the liquid.

Images of the microplastic remnants in hot water after leaving it in the paper cups for 15 min, viewed under fluorescence. Image credits: Ranjan et al.

The researchers poured hot water into the disposable paper cups and allowed it to sit for 15 minutes. The water was then analyzed for the presence of microplastics as well as additional ions that may have leached into the liquid from the paper cup. They also looked at the changes experienced in the properties of the plastic films of the cup.

They found that 25,000 micron-sized microplastic particles are released into 100 mL of hot liquid (85 to 90ºC) residing in the paper cups for 15 minutes. Thus, an average person drinking three regular cups of tea or coffee daily, in a paper cup, would be ingesting 75,000 tiny microplastic particles.

“This study shows that careful consideration needs to be done before the promotion of replacements for bio-hazardous products and environmental pollutants. We have been quick to replace plastics cups and glasses with disposable paper cups,” said IIT-Kharagpur director, Virendra Tewari, in a statement.

Still, the researchers acknowledge that the convenience of paper cups is such that it is hard to find a suitable replacement, especially in modern office settings where paper cups go with coffee-vending machines. Globally, some 264 billion paper cups were produced in 2019 for consuming food and beverages.

Still, potential solutions are coming in at all angles, from every corner of the world. Reusable cups from bamboo or other non-plastic materials are popping up more and more. Entrepreneurs have developed reusable cup rental systems, plant-based and biodegradable single-use cups, fiber-based cups and lids, compostable cups grown from mushrooms, and a gourd cup grown in 3D-printed molds. The solutions exist. They may require an extra bit of effort compared to paper cups, but they exist.

The study was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

Up to 14 million tons of microplastics believed to be on the seafloor

The world’s seafloor is filled with 14 million tons of microplastics, broken down from the masses of rubbish entering the oceans every year, according to a new study. It’s the first global estimate of sea-floor microplastics and the amount registered is 25 times greater than that shown by previous localized studies.

Credit Destination Arctic Circle Flickr

Researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) looked at the deep ocean 380km (236 miles) from the coast of South Australia. They found that the number of microplastics on the seafloor was more than double the amount of plastic pollution on the surface of the sea globally.

“Our research found that the deep ocean is a sink for microplastics,” lead research scientist Denise Hardesty said in a statement. “We were surprised to observe high microplastic loads in such a remote location.”

Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is an internationally recognized environmental problem. Millions of tons of plastic enter marine ecosystems every year, and quantities are expected to increase in the coming years. Over time, plastic items in the ocean can degrade or break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These can range in size from 5mm, or the size of a rice grain, down to microscopic size, which makes it easy for them to be ingested by sea creatures. They also include small pieces of synthetic fibers and plastic beads used in cosmetic items, toothpaste, and laundry powder soap.

The researchers used a robotic submarine to collect samples of deep-sea sediments up to 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) deep from six sites in the Great Australian Bight, 380 kilometers off the coast. They analyzed 51 samples and found an average of 1.26 microplastic pieces per gram of sediment, much more than previous studies.

While the findings show a large number of microplastics on the seafloor, the researchers said it’s just a fraction of the total amount of plastic that is dumped into the world’s seas each year. Around 150 million metric tons of plastic are already floating in our oceans, with eight million more tons ending up in the water each year.

“By identifying where and how much microplastic there is, we get a better picture of the extent of the problem,” said Hardesty in a statement. “This will help to inform waste management strategies and create behavioral change and opportunities to stop plastic and other rubbish entering our environment.”

The results showcase the urgency of finding effective solutions to stop plastic pollution before it reaches the oceans, the researchers argued. They called to cut back the use of plastic in general, mainly thinking of single-use plastics, while also advocating for increased recycling across the globe.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers.

Study finds plastic particles in human organs, raising health concerns

While studies on wildlife have linked plastics to several health problems, their effects in humans are still mostly unknown. Now, a new study has found evidence that human organs and tissue absorb both nano- and microplastics, which could help us understand their impact on our health.

Credit Oregon State University

Plastics are one of the most severe environmental problems of our time. They are very durable, even in the most extreme environmental conditions, making them the worst kind of material to be floating around the ocean or washing up on pristine beaches.

But that’s not all; they can also easily break down. Researchers define microplastics as plastic fragments less than 5 mm, or about 0.2 inches, in diameter. Nanoplastics are even smaller, with diameters under 0.001 mm. Exposure to such plastic in wildlife can lead to cancer, infertility, and inflammation/

“You can find plastics contaminating the environment at virtually every location on the globe,” said Charles Rolsky, co-author of the study, in a statement.

“There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies, but very few studies have looked for it there. And at this point, we don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard.”

Rolsky and a group of researchers from Arizona State University wondered if the tiny particles accumulate in human organs. To find out, they analyzed 47 samples from lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys, organs likely to be exposed to plastics, obtained from a repository of brain and body tissues.

The team created a technique to extract plastics from the samples and analyze them. They also developed a computer program that converts information on plastic particle count into units of mass and surface area. The tool will be shared with other researchers so all results can be reported in a standardized manner.

The method can detect dozens of types of plastic components within human tissues, including polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyethylene (PE). The team found plastic contamination in all the analyzed samples. Bisphenol A (BPA), used in food containers, was found in all samples.

“We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere [may] enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects,” Varun Kelkar, one of the researchers that participated in the study, said in a statement.

Going forward, the researchers hope to compare the levels of microplastics in the tissues of donors with information about their lives, which is typically collected along with the tissue itself. This could draw some links between certain activities, foods, even jobs, and the prevalence of microplastics in each person’s tissue.

The results of the study were presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

A common crustacean can break microplastics in just four days

A small crustacean from Ireland can fragment microplastics into tiny particles in just a matter of days, much faster than previously estimated. This highlights the potential of freshwater and marine species to rapidly fragment microplastics, but it won’t rid us of plastic anytime soon.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Previous research had shown the breakdown of plastics in marine ecosystems mainly happens through slow processes, such as being broken apart by waves or decaying through long-term exposure to sunlight. But this isn’t necessarily the case, as seen in the new study.

Researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland found that a “very common” crustacean, called Gammarus duebeni, which can be found on Irish streams, can break down microplastics (smaller than 5 mm) in less than 100 hours and turn them into nanoplastics — pieces that measure less than one micrometer.

“When I started studying this three years ago, it sounded so crazy that such small animals could be fragmenting plastics but our research shows that plastic fragments comprised nearly 66% of all observed microplastic particles accumulated in the guts of these animals,” lead author Alicia Mateos-Cárdenas told The Guardian.

Mateos-Cárdenas and her team used spherical microbeads of polyethylene for the experiment, a common polymer that can be found in plastic bottles. Each of the microbead was tagged with a fluorescent dye, making the ingestion and fragmentation could be trackable through microscope.

The microbeads were broken down by the crustaceans into nanoplastics that measured less than or one thousandth of a millimeter, the findings showed. The researchers found more fragments when exposing the crustacean to a high concentration of microplastics for four days.

The study showed that the proportion of smaller plastic fragments was at its highest when the amphipods had been purged in pure water in the presence of their food, a plant material, indicating that biological fragmentation could be closely related with the feeding process.

“We saw that the amphipods ingest these plastic particles, grinding them with their mandibles as they eat them and pass them on to the digestive system but we don’t yet understand how these animals break down the plastic. We need to investigate the actual mechanism of this biological fragmentation,” said Mateos-Cárdenas.

In addition to helping researchers understand how plastic breaks down in marine ecosystems, the findings can also be highly relevant for plastic modeling studies. Biological fragmentation is not currently considered in the fate of plastics in the environment, the researchers argued, calling for further research into the capacity of creatures to produce plastic fragments through digestive processes.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Tons of microplastics are raining down on US national parks

More than 1,000 tons of microplastics, which would be enough to make 300 million water bottles, are deposited every year by wind and rain on national parks and protected areas in the United States. The new study casts light on an alternative movement of microplastics that has been overlooked.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a figure that is growing year by year. Most of that plastic ends up in landfills or the ocean, and eventually degrades into small microplastic particles, which can now be found in almost all the ecosystems of the planet, from the tallest mountains to deserted islands.

Although researchers have widely investigated the role of microplastics in different environments, there’s still a gap in our understanding of microplastics move between the land, the oceans and the atmosphere around the planet. Now, recent studies have shown the fragments are picked up by winds as they are small and light.

Janice Brahney from Utah State University, along with colleagues, studied the transport and accumulation of microplastics in eleven remote and protected areas across the western US. These include popular tourist attractions in the country such as the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.

The researchers compared the size and shape of the particles that fell during dry and wet weather and found that the deposition rates averaged 132 plastics per square meter per day across the eleven areas. This amounts to more than 1,000 tons annually across all the protected areas in the western US.

“We were shocked at the estimated deposition rates and kept trying to figure out where our calculations went wrong,” Brahney said. “We then confirmed through 32 different particle scans that roughly 4% of the atmospheric particles analyzed from these remote locations were synthetic polymers”

Dry and wet plastic

The study looked at the source and life history of both the wet and dry microplastic deposition. Cities and populated centers were found to be the initial source of plastics associated with wet deposition. Meanwhile, dry deposition showed indicators of long-range transport and was associated with large-scale atmospheric patterns

“Plastics that fall out in rain are more likely to be sourced from local sources, like a nearby city. Whereas plastics falling out of the sky during ‘dry’ periods appeared to be coming from much further away. We are only scratching the surface, and have a lot more to learn about the atmospheric limb of the plastic cycle,” Brahney told Newsweek.

Most of the plastics in wet and dry samples were microfibers sourced from both clothing and industrial materials. Approximately 30% of the particles were brightly colored microbeads, but not those commonly associated with personal care products. These microbeads were acrylic and are likely derived from industrial paints and coatings.

The presence of microplastics in the atmosphere has unknown consequences for the health of wildlife but the study found particles that had a size sufficiently large to accumulate in the lung tissue and cause problems. At the same time, the deposition in natural areas could influence these ecosystems, altering their function.

“This ubiquity of microplastics in the atmosphere and the subsequent deposition to remote terrestrial and aquatic environments raise widespread ecological and societal concerns,” Brahney said in a statement. “Identifying the key mechanisms of plastic emission to the atmosphere is a first step in developing global-scale solutions.”

The study was published in the journal Science.

Microplastics litter the entire planet — down to the depths of the ocean

Plastic is essentially everywhere and it has become one of the fundamental environmental problems of our era.

Unlike other types of waste, it doesn’t really decompose — it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, until it turns into pieces smaller than five millimeters. These pieces are called microplastic, and they’re seemingly everywhere.

A collection of microfibers discovered by scientists. Credit University of Manchester

Microplastics are a relatively recent discovery. We’re not really sure what consequences this is having on the environment and our health, but while scientists are working to figure it out, the amount of plastic waste keeps growing — even on the seafloor.

A group of researchers has just identified the highest levels of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor, with up to 1.9 million pieces covering just one square meter. The microplastics were found in sediments taken from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Italy.

“We were really shocked by the volume of microplastics we found deposited on the deep seafloor bed,” Ian Kane, lead author, told CNN. “It was much higher than anything we have seen before. The garbage patches of bottles, straws and bags on the surface of the water is the tip of the iceberg.”

The researchers, from the UK, Germany and France, said the accumulation of floating plastic accounts for less than 1% of the 10 million tons of plastic that enter the world’s oceans each year. The missing 99% is accumulated in the deep ocean, according to their findings.

A box core sample from the seafloor. Image credits: University of Manchester

The flow of plastic particles in the world’s oceans is directed by deep-sea oceanic currents.

These currents run as if they were conveyor belts, moving around plastic fragments and fibers across the seafloor, the study showed. This help microplastics gather within large sediment accumulations, which the researchers called microplastic hotspots.

“The currents build what are called drift deposits; think of underwater sand dunes,” said Kane. “They can be tens of kilometers long and hundreds of meters high. They are among the largest sediment accumulations on Earth. They’re made predominantly of very fine silt, so it’s intuitive to expect microplastics will be found within them.”

The researchers collected samples of sediments from the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. Then, they separated the microplastics from the sediment and determined how ocean currents controlled the distribution of microplastics on the seafloor.

This graphic shows how microplastics are transported by currents. Image credits: University of Manchester

The most concerning issue for the team is that the currents that move microplastics around also supply oxygen and nutrients to living organisms in the seafloor. So, by following the same route, microplastics could be entering into biodiversity hotspots, with high chances of them being eaten by marine life.

“We’re all making an effort to improve our safety and we are all staying at home and changing our lives – changing our work life, or even stopping work,” Elda Miramontes, co-author, told BBC. “We’re doing all this so that people are not affected by this sickness. We have to think in the same way when we protect our oceans.”

The study was published in the journal Science.

Meet Eurythenes plasticus, the new marine species named after plastic

Discovery a new species is usually a reason for celebration, especially in the ocean, where up to a million species live and two-thirds of them may still be undiscovered. Nevertheless, the expansion of microplastics in the water in recent years has changed things a bit.

Credit Newcastle University

A group of researchers from Newcastle University discovered a new species of a marine creature, a type of crustacean called an amphipod. Their glee was short-lived, however, as they quickly found plastic in its body, showing the large scale of plastic pollution across the globe.

The crustacean was found in the Marina Trench at a depth of roughly 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). But even animals that live in such extreme and ostensibly remote areas of the world are affected by plastic pollution.

Inside the body of the previously unknown amphipod, the researchers found little pieces of plastic debris, called microplastics. The material was identified as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — a kind of plastic used broadly, in both drink and food packaging.

Consequently, the team at Newcastle decided to call the species Eurythenes plasticus, to forever remind the world about the grim state of the global environment from the effects of pollution. Urgent action needs to be taken to “stop the deluge of plastic waste into our oceans,” said lead author Alan Jamieson in a statement.

“We have new species turning up that are already contaminated and so we have missed the window to understand these species in a natural environment,” said Jamieson to Newsweek. “This discovery exemplifies the extent of the plastic problem. Species in remote and extreme marine environments are suffering as a result of human activity.”

Plastic waste is now found throughout all the world’s oceans. A 2015 study showed that roughly 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every single year. Once there, it begins to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics — that are subsequently eaten by animals.

Microplastics appeared in nature at the same time as plastics, more than 50 years ago. As the world is producing more and more plastic, the number of microplastics continues to grow dramatically. Researchers from several countries are working to understand their distribution and impacts.

The finding by the Newcastle researchers and the decision to name the species linked to plastics was welcomed by environmental organizations. It was a “bold and necessary move,” said the Vice President of Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Lauren Spurrier.

“There can be no disputing the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our environment and its impact on nature,” she said to Newsweek, via a statement. “We now are seeing even more devastating impacts of plastic pollution; in that it is infecting species science is only just now discovering.”

The study was published in the journal Zootaxa.

There’s a million times more microplastic in the ocean than we thought

Microplastics come from household items all around us. Here’s a kitchen sponge with small pieces breaking away. Image credits: Hungchaka / Wikipedia.

If you took 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of ocean water, how many pieces of plastic do you think you’d end up with: a hundred? A thousand? A hundred thousand?

According to a new study, the answer is 8.3 million. That’s 8,300 for every liter of water, or 31,439 per gallon.

That’s also a million times more than previous estimates.

A big tiny problem

The problem with plastic is that it never really goes away — well, it does go away, but it takes centuries or millennia. Instead, what plastic usually does is break down into smaller and smaller pieces, until you can’t really see it; but it’s still there.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters. They come from a variety of sources, either from products that contain microplastics themselves (like some cosmetics or cleaning products) or from larger pieces of plastic that break down.

Plastic is everywhere, and it usually makes its way into the oceans. It doesn’t just stay in the water. It’s absorbed by creatures and accumulates higher up the food chain, even ending up inside humans.

It’s not exactly clear how microplastics are affecting wildlife and human health, but establishing just how much of it is around is a good step.

Biological oceanographer Jennifer Brandon had an unsettling idea: what if we’ve been counting microplastics wrong? She suspected that the current counting methods miss the smallest plastic pieces.

“For years we’ve been doing microplastics studies the same way (by) using a net to collect samples,” said Brandon in a press release. “But anything smaller than that net mesh has been escaping.” She suspected that existing papers are missing some of the plastics.

“I saw these published size ranges and thought, we are under-sampling this smaller range. There’s a big knowledge gap,” Brandon said.

So instead, Brandon and colleagues used a different method, gathering samples from both water and salps, gelatinous filter-feeding invertebrates that suck in water both to eat and propel themselves around the upper 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) of the ocean. Salps suck in and expel the water. They presumably also expel the microplastics, but it takes them a few hours to do so, so you’d be able to see if their last meal included any microplastics.

Salps are barrel-shaped gelatinous invertebrates that feed on plankton. They have one of the most efficient examples of jet propulsion in the animal kingdom, and efficient internal feeding filters. Image credits: Peter Southwood / Wikipedia.

The researchers gathered 100 salps and sent them to the Scripps Oceanography, where co-authors Alexandra Freibott and Michael Landry searched for plastic in salp guts. They used a fluorescent microscope because conveniently, plastic lights up when exposed to multiple wavelengths of light — which means it’s easy to detect with this type of method. But the results were not so convenient.

Out of the 100 analyzed salps, 100 contained microplastics. There is good reason to believe that close to 100% of all the ocean’s salps are infested with microplastics. This was even surprising to the researchers.

“I definitely thought some of them would be clean because they have a relatively quick gut clearance time,” Brandon said. The time it takes a salp to consume and defecate is two to seven hours. As filter feeders, salps are almost always eating.

From land to sea

Surprisingly, the concentration of microplastic wasn’t higher around the great garbage patch in the ocean. Instead, there seemed to be more pieces in surface waters closest to the shore. The most likely cause for this is runoff pollution from the land.

Other than that, the plastic distribution seemed to be quite uniform, which is quite concerning. This suggests that the plastic is spread throughout entire ecosystems. Since most plastics are too strong to be broken by bacteria and digestive systems, they are simply passed along the food chain. Humans don’t eat salps, but other things do — and other things eat those other things… and after a few connections, you end up in the range of fish that humans do eat.

“No one eats salps but it’s not far away on the food chain from the things you do eat,” Brandon said.

Some microplastics can also be small enough to enter the human bloodstream. While the consequences of this ingestion are not fully understood, there are valid concerns about potential health impacts.

Microbeads are not a recent problem. We’ve recently started to properly acknowledge it, but according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic microbeads appeared when the firs plastics appeared, more than 50 years ago. As the world is producing more and more plastic, the number of microplastics continues to grow dramatically. Researchers from several countries are working to understand their distribution and impacts. Studies such as this one fill an important knowledge gap in this direction.

You can read the full study here.

There’s a knowledge gap on effects of microplastics in North America, study finds

The world is becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects of plastics in marine ecosystems. But North America faces a challenge it’s not really familiar with: its understanding of the effects of microplastics on fisheries and humans is less than in other continents, a study showed.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Plastics represent up to 95% of all waste in global oceans and on beaches, and the amount that enters the marine environment grows every year. Plastics never really go away, they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, until they become what’s known as microplastics. Microplastics have been found in surface water, sediments and in marine organisms, but also in tap water and even in humans. There are warranted fears that microplastics represent a threat to all marine ecosystems as well as human health — and it’s a threat we weren’t aware of until recently.

A group of researchers at Portland State University (PSU), Oregon State University (OSU), and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNC-W) looked at microplastics studies on commercially important fishery species published before March 1, 2019.

Most of the studies found were from Europe, Asia, and South America. This shows, researchers argued, that more research is needed to establish the prevalence, physiological effects, and population‐level implications of microplastics in commercial species from Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

“Because seafood — both aquacultured and wild-caught — are so important to the human diet and culture, it’s really important to investigate microplastics specifically on our continent and not relying on data from another part of the world because environmental conditions can be very different,” said Britta Baechler, a Ph.D. student in PSU’s Earth, Environment and Society program.

In the US, microplastic effects have been researched in only three of the top 10 commercial finfish species. This means more studies are needed to understand microplastic exposure and effects in a larger group of commercially harvested finfish and shellfish species.

Researchers also said there should be more studies that focused on the effects of microplastics on populations or food webs, addressing the current knowledge gap. This could help fisheries and aquaculture managers to predict much better potential population-level issues associated with increased exposure to microplastics.

Finally, the study argued there should be more work on the role of microplastic as an environmental stressor. Oceans are already being threatened by growing temperatures and acidification because of climate change so it would be valuable to understand better those impacts in relation to microplastics.

“We think of North America as a hotspot for scientific research, yet in terms of understanding microplastics — both contamination in our commercial fishery species and understanding effects, we’re lagging far behind,” said Elise Granek, a professor of environmental science and management in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

What do we know about microplastics?

Microplastics are not only found in the marine environment. They are also eaten by hundreds of species around the world. A 2015 study showed over 690 species had encounters with marine waste through entanglement and ingestion, with 92% of those encounters involving plastic.

The main way organismal microplastic exposure happens is when they are eaten by mistake, thinking they are prey items, or by eating contaminated prey items. Consumed microplastics can transfer across trophic levels and may in predators.

Microplastics have been detected in seafood intended for human consumption. Shellfish, small fish, bivalves, and echinoderms may pose the greatest risks to human consumers because they are usually eaten whole. Only one report has examined human faeces finding that samples contained up to nine different types of plastic

Study finds billions of plastic particles released by tea bags

Tea drinkers may now think twice before using plastic tea bags, as a new set of tests found that a single bag sheds billions of particles of microplastic into each cup. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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Researchers discovered that a cup of the brewed beverage may come with a dose of micro- and nano-sized plastics shed from the bags. Possible health effects of ingesting these particles are currently unknown.

Over time, plastic breaks down into tiny microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics, the latter being less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size. Scientists have detected the microscopic particles in the environment, aquatic organisms and the food supply, but they don’t yet know whether they are harmful to humans.

Nathalie Tufenkji and her team wondered whether recently introduced plastic teabags could be releasing micro- and nanoplastics into the beverage during brewing. They also wanted to explore the effects of the released particles on small aquatic organisms called Daphnia magna, or water fleas, which are model organisms often used in environmental studies.

In order to do this, they purchased four different commercial teas packaged in plastic tea bags. They cut open the bags, removed the tea leaves and washed the empty bags. Then, they heated the teabags in containers of water to simulate brewing conditions.

Using electron microscopy, the team found that a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature released about 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into the water. These levels were thousands of times higher than those reported previously in other foods.

“We think that it is a lot when compared to other foods that contain microplastics,” Tufenkji said. “Table salt, which has a relatively high microplastic content, has been reported to contain approximately 0.005 micrograms plastic per gram salt. A cup of tea contains thousands of times greater mass of plastic, at 16 micrograms per cup.”

More research is needed to determine the kind of impact the particles will have on humans, the researcher added. For now, she said, it’s best to avoid plastic tea bags and seek out other options.

“Tea can be purchased in paper tea bags or as loose-leaf tea, which eliminates the need for this single-use plastic packaging,” she said.