Plastic is the most common type of debris found in our oceans and waterways. There are considerable consequences when plastics end up in our water environment, not just for the fish and animals that live there, but also for human health and the communities that rely on our oceans, lakes, and rivers. That’s why innovative research is helping scientists look below the surface to try to understand the impact of microplastics on the marine environment.

“The more we look, the more we see the daunting truth,” says Dr. Peter Ross, Vice President of Research at Ocean Wise. “Microplastics are any piece of synthetic plastic smaller than 5mm, and they’re widespread. They’re in every corner of the planet and we’re finding them in every species of animal.”

There are two kinds of microplastics. The first include small manufactured plastic beads and nurdles, the plastic particles used in making large-scale plastics. The second type is created by the breakdown of larger plastics caused by the disposal of plastic boxes and crates, toys, and water bottles.

Some of the microplastics are so small they are difficult to see with the naked eye. “We know there is an adverse impact on our environment,” says Dr. Ross. “We just don’t know how widespread that impact is. There are lots of stresses on our oceans, from other pollutants to climate change, so we need to learn more.”

Death in the ocean

According to Dr. Ross, there is a long record of scientific documentation attributing the death of sea turtles, whales, and other marine life to plastic. The perplexing part for scientists is the size and shape of microplastics. Plus, they don’t break down chemically, so they stay in the environment forever — something Dr. Ross refers to as a geological layer of plastic that will be unearthed in the future.

To understand the health risks of microplastics and other pollutants, Dr. Ross and his team at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative, are deploying hundreds of mussels in nets off the coast of southern BC. Mussels are great at giving researchers a snapshot of overall water quality, as they absorb particles and contaminants. This allows scientists to learn about the health conditions of marine life exposed to microplastics.

Also being studied is the impact of microplastics on zooplankton — microscopic animals which scientists have learned are eating these plastics at a worrying rate. The concern is for the entire marine food web.

A role for all

“We are eating, drinking, and breathing in microplastics every day, and we don’t really know what it’s doing to us, but I am heartened by the conversations that are happening with respect to plastics in our society,” says Dr. Ross. “At Ocean Wise, we believe there is a fundamental need for everyone to play a role. It is our job, as scientists, to say what we have learned and to offer some solutions that can help inform government, business, and other stakeholders, so we can enact changes that will protect future generations.”

Around the world, people are throwing away 86 percent of plastic packaging that should actually be recycled. “We need to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and improve its recyclability,” Dr. Ross says. “Ignorance is bliss, but if we are unaware that microplastics are diminishing our food supply or contaminating our drinking water, we will fall victim to that.” Ocean Wise has launched a #BePlasticWise pledge campaign asking individuals to commit to monthly actions to reduce their single use plastic consumption. Take the pledge at ocean.org/pledge.