Mussels

What do Microplastics mean for our oceans?

Interview with Dr Cath Waller
Odds are that when you’re washing your face or spin cycling your clothes, you’re probably not thinking about the state of a whale’s stomach. Or what’s lurking inside your next cod and chips, for that matter.

Well that might change once you familiarise yourself with ocean microplastics and the research of Dr Cath Waller, a lecturer in marine biology at the University of Hull.

So what are Microplastics and how do they wind up in our oceans?

Microplastics are generally defined as any plastic under 5mm. In recent years, they’ve become synonymous with the cosmetics industry, where they’re used as exfoliants in everything from face wash to toothpaste. These microplastics are rinsed down plug holes, into a water system that wasn’t designed to filter them, and out into our oceans.

“If you drop something on the beach in Blackpool, currents will take that plastic all around the world."

But that’s not the end of it. Microplastics are everywhere. They’re released as fibres every time you wash synthetic clothes and, even worse, often break away from things like plastic bottles that have been sent to landfill; ending up in rivers and then the seas.

“The issue is that people don’t appreciate the global impact of small everyday decisions,” says Dr Waller. “If you drop something on the beach in Blackpool, currents will take that plastic all around the world. The same goes for exfoliants that are rinsed down the drain. It’s not just a local problem, it’s creating an issue for ecosystems all over the world.”

What's the issue with a bit of plastic in our oceans?

Plastic, by its very nature, is designed to last. In fact, it takes some 450 years for a single plastic bottle to completely break down. And there’s a lot of it. Every year nearly 12 million tonnes of plastic winds up in our ocean and it’s estimated that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

“The simple fact is that we don’t know the full impact of ocean plastics, However the facts that we do know are all pretty bad."

Speaking of fish: microplastics end up buying eaten by all manner of creatures, from the smallest krill right up blue whales. Plastic has rapidly made its way throughout the food chain to the point where it’s now found in coral, shark bellies and seal poo alike.

And now it's coming for humans

A recent study at the University of Hull, conducted by Professor Jeanette Rotchell, found that 100% of supermarket-bought mussels, tested under lab conditions, contained traces of microplastic. Let that sink in while you think back to your last paella.

Meanwhile, similar studies have found traces of plastic in 80% of tested European and American drinking water, as well as in the humble battered cod. Even our Friday night fish and chips aren't safe. “The simple fact is that we don’t know the full impact of ocean plastics,”: says Dr Waller. “However the facts that we do know are all pretty bad.”

Even the Antarctic isn’t safe

Dr Waller recently conducted research into the southern ocean, where it was predicted that plastic pollution wasn't yet an issue. Indeed her own estimates – looking at the cruise ships and fishing vessels that passed through the southern ocean and the research stations in the region – were conservative, predicting just 500 kilos of pollution over thelast decade.

To Dr Waller’s surprise, however, the actual amount of plastic found in this fairly unoccupied corner of the world were 100,000 times higher. “This level of plastic can’t be coming from the Antarctic, but something’s happening, it’s coming from somewhere,” she says.

“Until there’s a worldwide solution, we have to take personal responsibility, We need to stop using straws and certain face washes, put aside our dependence on plastic bottles.”

A further study took beach sand and muscle samples from Greenland, which showed plastic contamination levels way outstripping the tiny nation’s 55,000 strong population. “My guess is that plastic is flowing north on European currents,” says Dr Waller. “It’s everywhere now.”

So what can we do?

To tackle the tide of ocean plastics we need legislation against straws, cosmetics and synthetic clothes. It worked for plastic bags, where their use in the UK went down by about 75% after the 5p charge initiative. But legislation is difficult when this is a global problem involving dozens of countries. However, this is only a short-term fix. For longer-term solutions, we need international co-operation and legislation similar to the Montreal protocol on reducing CFCs. 

“Until there’s a worldwide solution, we have to take personal responsibility,” says Dr Waller. “We need to stop using straws and certain face washes, put aside our dependence on plastic bottles. These are small daily sacrifices that we can make, and that could begin saving our oceans.”

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Written by Daniel Humphry – award-winning writer and founder of OFF LIFE, the UK’s only street press comic.

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