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The big problem of microplastics

Since mass production of plastic began 60 years ago, humankind has produced over eight billion metric tons of plastic. Just 9% has been recycled, another 12% incinerated. The rest, almost 80% of the plastic ever created, amasses in landfill sites or ends up in the natural environment, eventually finding its way into rivers, streams and oceans. Plastic is accumulating in our oceans at an alarming rate – the largest concentration of ocean plastic waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located between California and Hawaii, is estimated to measure three times the size of France, while heart-breaking images of animals entangled in plastic are shockingly common. Plastic pollution has become a very visible issue – but one of the most intractable forms of ocean pollution is harder to see: microplastics. Plastic does not biodegrade, but breaks down into ever smaller pieces, resulting in microplastics. Smaller than 5mm in dimension, much of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste in our oceans is made up of microplastics. How these tiny particles affect our environment is still a relatively unexplored area of research, but one Nottingham researcher is diving in to discover how we can begin to tackle the big problem of microplastics. 

“Microplastics are affecting our environment in so many ways, and it’s still something that we don’t fully understand,” explains Tom Stanton, a PhD researcher in the School of Geography and Faculty of Engineering. “Rivers are a pathway for microplastics to enter the marine environment, but before I started my PhD, there was no published work on how freshwater microplastic pollution varies over time or how far upstream our rivers it is a problem. I’m trying to fill that knowledge gap through my research into microplastic pollution along upstream reaches of the River Trent and two of its tributaries, the River Soar and River Leen, as well as atmospheric fallout in local areas. 

“Any wildlife in or around rivers is exposed to the threats of microplastic pollution. We know that they can be ingested by organisms as small as zooplankton. If ingested, microplastics can block the gastrointestinal tracts of organisms, or trick them into thinking they don’t need to eat, leading to starvation. Many toxic chemicals can also adhere to the surface of plastic and, if ingested, contaminated microplastics could expose organisms to high concentrations of toxins.” 

As more microplastics fill our marine environment, and are consumed by the creatures that inhabit our waters, greater concentrations of these plastic particles are entering our food chain. Recent research, for example, by the Austrian Environment Agency and the University of Vienna, has suggested evidence of microplastics has been detected in humans for the first time. Tom attended an international microplastics conference this month through the Papplewick Pumping Station Water Education Trust (WET) Scholarship, established by the Trust's Honorary President Geoffrey Bond. Tom explains why research into microplastics is crucial to help instigate the changes needed to tackle plastic pollution.  

“For the past three years, my supervisors and I have been the only people researching microplastic pollution at the University of Nottingham, so the opportunity to present my work at the conference and receive feedback from people working in the same field as me was invaluable. There’s a great deal of agreement within the academic microplastic community. But the problem of plastic pollution cannot be tackled by research alone.

Plastic is not the root of the problem, but rather the single-use lifestyle we've become accustomed to.


"Our research must inform government, industry and members of the public. It’s clear the public want to make a difference, but unnecessary plastic is still being forced upon consumers. Industries and politicians are not instigating the changes necessary to curb the problems of plastic and microplastic pollution quickly enough.”

It’s easy to paint plastic as the great evil of our age. Yet, Tom argues that plastic itself isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s what we do with it. Each one of us can make small changes to adapt the bigger picture. 

“Programmes such as Blue Planet II have done a great job to raise awareness of this problem. But public perception of plastic often fails to see the bigger picture. There are many environmental benefits to plastic – reducing carbon emissions due to its light weight, or its ability to reduce food waste, for example. Many plastic items that have been labelled as pointless also have social benefits or medical benefits. 

“We need to stop using plastic that is not necessary, and to have a much simpler and more transparent recycling system. It’s not enough to replace plastic with alternatives such as glass, metal and paper, as these all have their own environmental problems. Plastic is not the root of the problem, but rather the single-use lifestyle that we have become accustomed to. We can all help to tackle plastic pollution by changing the way we use plastics. Every piece of unnecessary plastic that is re-used will prevent centuries of potential environmental harm. Small changes go a long way.”

The University of Nottingham has launched a campaign to reduce single-use plastics across our UK campuses. Find out more about our WasteNott campaign and what we’re doing to become one of the UK’s most sustainable universities. 

 

Faye HaslamWords: Faye Haslam (History, 2012), Connect Staff Writer

Nottingham graduate, writer and speaker. Curious creative inspired by film, music, history, knowledge and big ideas. A traveller at heart, always planning the next big adventure.