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Water Today Title February 29, 2024

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Update 2023/4/11

Plastic Smog
Research shows plumes of microplastics hovering over the ocean

By Suzanne Forcese

“A growing plastic smog, now estimated to be over 170 trillion plastic particles, afloat in the world’s oceans – urgent solutions required.””
--Lisa M. Erdle, PhD, Director of Science and Innovation 5 Gyres, and co-lead author of peer-reviewed research

Interview with Lisa Erdle

WT: Lisa, please introduce yourself to our viewers. You were born and raised in Toronto, Canada. What was the journey that brought you to 5 Gyres? Describe the work that 5 Gyres does.

Erdle: I am a biologist and ecotoxicologist. I have been researching plastic pollution for over a decade.

I grew up swimming and sailing on the Great Lakes and I am passionate about keeping our waterways clean for wildlife and people.

In my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, I investigated microplastics (small plastics ≤ 5 mm) and spent a lot of my time doing science to help inform solutions. My work became focused on microfiber, the small fibres from textiles, looking at their various sources, fate in the environment, and effects on wildlife.

Although there are a lot of scientific questions to ask, we do know enough to act.

I have continued a lot of my research at 5 Gyres (California). We ask scientific questions where our results can help inform decision-making for the public, brands, and policymakers.

5 Gyres does science, advocacy,

on plastic pollution. The work we do is to help reduce harm from plastic pollution. What are the most effective solutions? How will this vary by different sectors of society? We ask these questions and make this available so decisions can be based on sound science.

WT: There is a wealth of “plastic” information on the 5 Gyres website. For today’s conversation, we will look specifically at your latest peer-reviewed paper on plastic smog that you co-authored with 5 Gyres Co-founder Marcus Erikson (regarded as the #1 expert on plastic pollution).

What is plastic smog?

Erdle: Plastic smog is the prevalence of microplastics we see in ecosystems around the globe. Just as smog in the air is something difficult to see, the oceans (and other ecosystems) are contaminated with a smog of microplastics that is difficult to observe with the naked eye.

For many years, awareness grew about plastic in the oceans, but ocean plastic was often talked about as an “island of trash” or a “garbage patch” in the middle of the sea.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is not a floating island of trash that is twice the size of Texas. It is not an island you can stand on or something you can necessarily see. This zone is an ocean gyre, with an accumulation of plastic smog floating on the surface of the ocean.

WT: What were your findings regarding the increase in plastic smog?

Erdle: Our findings show an increase in this plastic smog (microplastics) and our estimate is that today there are over 170 trillion pieces of microplastic afloat in the ocean. Since 2005, we have seen a rapid increase of this plastic smog around the world.

WT: Why are plumes of microplastic highly toxic?

Erdle: Microplastics are a diverse suite of contaminants – there are many polymers, and chemical additives (some are known as toxins). These chemicals are attached to the microplastics from production. But more chemicals will stick to microplastics.

Each particle is like a highly toxic sponge because plastics absorb chemicals that water does not, for example, DDT, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and PFAS.

Microplastics can have negative effects in biota, and there is growing evidence that microplastics can cause physical damage to animals and can also cause toxic effects.

WT: What are the dangers for marine life? For humans?

Erdle: The negative effects of microplastics can be wide-ranging. Research shows microplastics can cause physical damage to digestive tracts, impairments to feeding behaviors and growth, cell damage, endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, and mortality.

For humans, research is still emerging, but we know that when human cells are exposed to microplastics in a lab, negative effects are observed.

WT: We have waterways and oceans full of plastic debris, micro and nano plastics. It is only getting worse. How did we get here?

Erdle: The rise of microplastics we have observed in the surface waters of the oceans is similar to trends observed along shorelines, in marine sediment, and in many habitats and wildlife around the world.

This rise in microplastics has coincided with a rapid rise in global plastic production.

Even with effective waste management, there may still be “leakage” of plastic to the environment. We also know that there are many different sectors of plastic pollution to the environment that contribute to these issues – the microplastic we see in the environment comes from many sources, such as fishing gear, textiles, single-use food packaging, car tires, and many more.

WT: What changes must occur? Is recycling an effective option? Do we need more aggressive strategies?

Erdle: Many are calling for a major system change. A complete overhaul of how we use plastic.

Our current linear framework – fossil fuel extraction, plastic production, product use, and finally disposal – is wasteful and is challenging our planet’s ability to handle the waste.

99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels. When we think about climate change, we typically focus on factories, coal, and cars, but rarely on this fact.

Researchers say we may have already crossed a planetary boundary in the number of plastics and synthetic chemicals we have produced. What is clear is that recycling alone cannot handle the sheer volume and complexity of what we are producing. There are now hundreds of polymers in use, and thousands of chemical additives. This is a massive challenge for recyclers.

Solutions will be multi-faceted but should first rely on reduction targets. Most of the plastic that has ever been produced has ended up in landfills. Some have been recycled and incinerated, but it is a small fraction of the billions of metric tons of plastic that has been produced.

WT: The UN is currently considering a global plastics treaty. Please comment on this and what 5 Gyres' position is on solutions.

Erdle: Negotiations are underway for a global plastics treaty.

Decision makers will be meeting in Paris in May, and many are calling for a robust and binding international treaty. Over the years we have seen many voluntary efforts, but even as they came into effect, concentrations of plastic in the oceans continued to rise.

WT: What can the individual do?

Erdle: Start with a few simple strategies by refusing the top five sources of single-use plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic to-go containers, plastic takeaway cups, and plastic straws.

Buy in bulk – packaging now accounts for 25% of all plastic manufacturing. Buying bigger helps reduce the amount of plastic.

Wear natural fabrics. Unlike wool and cotton, plastic microfibers from synthetic materials do not biodegrade.

The best thing is “get organized”. 

Plastic activists talk about downstream environmental impacts or health threats, but only marginally about the connection between the plastic economy and carbon pollution.

At 5 Gyres we believe it is also important to look upstream – at the industries expanding plastics production to stop emissions at the source.

Solutions are found when organizations like 5 Gyres work with people, politicians, and corporations.



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