Dr. William H. Schlesinger President Emeritus, Biogeochemist Share: February 20, 2018 Microplastics, Pollution With some 300 million tons of plastic products produced annually, it is not surprising that plastic is ubiquitous debris in the environment. Plastic bags hang in the trees in New York City and blow across the barren lands of the Mojave desert. Discarded plastic is found on remote islands in the South Pacific, where one study found an average of 240 items on (or buried beneath) each square meter of beach. Much of the plastic in the oceans is expanded polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. Plastic wastes harbor microbial populations that degrade coral reefs, already under stress from warmer temperatures and greater acidity of seawater. The Church of England has asked its parishioners to give up plastic for Lent. Like booze, sex and profanity, plastics have become a sin. I've blogged about the problems of plastic before; this is an update. Most plastic is used in packaging and not recycled after use. We've all seen pictures of plastic wrappers strangling sea turtles, and plastic "nurdles" that crowd the digestive track of many seabirds. Under receipt of ultraviolet light from the sun, many plastic products degrade to smaller fragments that are less obvious in the environment. The average piece of discarded plastic lasts about 20 days in the open ocean, but small plastic particles can persist for centuries in the sediments. We should be thankful for this process, or we'd be knee deep in discarded plastics. On the other hand, degraded fragments of plastic, which are known as microplastics and nanoplastics, can enter organisms from their air and water. Degradation of plastics in the environment converts plastics from big, ugly debris that we can see to small unnoticed particles that may affect the health of humans and aquatic organisms. Runoff waters frequently contain microplastic particles, which are not removed by sewage treatment plants. Microplastic particles and fibers are found along the coastline of the southeastern U.S., with an origin in runoff waters. The waters of the Great Lakes contain an abundance of microplastic particles that are accumulated by fish and shellfish and passed into the food chain, including humans. Particles of microplastic contaminate canned foods, such as sardines. Nanoplastic particles in the air are inhaled by humans, causing lesions in the respiratory system. Plastics have brought safety and convenience to modern life, but the widespread contamination of nature with small particles of plastic has the potential to affect our health in ways that we are just beginning to understand. Even when Lent ends, there will be no substitute for recycling plastics and disposal of plastic in ways that do not produce uncontrolled contamination of our environment. References Chae, Y and Y.J. An. 2017. Effects of micro- and nanoplastics on aquatic ecosystems: Current research trends and perspectives. Marine Pollution Bulletin 124: 624-632. Eriksen, M. and 7 others. 2013. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Marine Pollution Bulletin 77: 177-182. Karami, A. and 5 others. 2018. Microplastic and mesoplastic contamination in canned sardines and sprats. Science of the Total Environment 612: 1380-1386. Lamb, J.B. and 10 others. 2018. Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs. Science 359: 460-462 Lavers, J.L. and A.L. Bond. 2017. Exceptional and rapid accumulation of anthropogenic debris on one of the world's most remote and pristine islands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 6052-6055. Perez-Pena, Richard. 2018. Church of England Names New Taboo for Lent: Plastics. New York Times, A4, February 16 Pitt, J.A. and 8 others. 2017. Uptake, tissue distribution, and toxicity of polystyrene nanoparticles in developing zebrafish (Danio rerioI). Aquatic Toxicology 194: 185-194. Prata, J.C. 2018. Airborne microplastics: Consequences to human health? Environmental Pollution 234: 115-126. Yi, X.B. and 5 others. 2018. Occurrence and distribution of microplastics at selected coastal sites along the southeastern United States. Science of the Total Environment 613: 298-305. Share: Dr. William H. Schlesinger President Emeritus, Biogeochemist William Schlesinger is active in communicating science to policy makers and media. He has testified about environmental issues in Congress and in state houses, and has been featured in media including NOVA, the Weather Channel, Discover, National Geographic, and the New York Times. He discusses a range of environmental issues in his weekly blog, Translational Ecology.