Microplastics in our oceans: How Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge is battling the tide of pollution
With the BBC's Blue Planet II on our screens, the majesty of our oceans has never been more apparent. Nor has the threat posed to marine life by our use of plastics.
At the launch of the spectacular new series of Blue Planet, David Attenborough called for immediate action on plastic pollution in our oceans.
“There are so many sequences that every single one of us have been involved in – even in the most peripheral way – where we have seen tragedies happen because of the plastic in the ocean,” he said.
“We’ve seen albatrosses come back with their belly full of food for their young and nothing in it. The albatross parent has been away for three weeks gathering stuff for her young and what comes out? What does she give her chick? You think it’s going to be squid, but it’s plastic. The chick is going to starve and die.
“There are more examples of that. But we could do things about plastic internationally tomorrow.”
Appropriately enough, in the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge, action is being taken by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the global conservation charity of which the veteran broadcaster is vice president.
Oceanographer Tanya Cox has been managing its marine plastics projects, which in recent years have focused on microplastics – pieces less than 5mm in diameter. There is no lower size limit.
“There are different direct and indirect sources,” says Tanya. “Indirect, or secondary, sources are derived from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic in the environment, either from exposure to sunlight, even radiation, physical abrasion, the action of waves or rocks, or whatever it might be.
“Direct sources are where the plastics are purpose-designed to be this size. They are either introduced to products that we use or escape from industrial facilities and enter the environment. That’s where we’ve focused most of our efforts as we felt they were avoidable sources.
“Cleaning up what’s in the oceans is an enormously challenging thing to do. While it’s absolutely crucial to rid the oceans of the plastic that’s out there, finding feasible, technically suitable solutions is really difficult.
“So to complement efforts around the world to clean up shorelines, rivers, harbours and the ocean, we’ve focused on direct sources and working with industry partners to improve policies and practices that eliminate them.”
FFI has focused on two main types of microplastics:
• nurdles – pre-production plastic pellets; and
• microbeads and other microplastic ingredients used in cosmetic and personal care products, such as facial scrubs, toothpaste and children’s bubble bath, which we’ll explore in the second part of this series.
“Nurdles are the building blocks for the plastic industry: everything made of plastic starts life like that,” says Tanya. “Where the petrochemicals are extruded off and fractioned off to produce plastic material they become pelletised in the factory so they can be transported easily.
“They are put into sacks and transported on the back of lorries, on trains or ships. They get melted down. Additives can be included for the colour, function or performance of the plastic.
“If spilled, they are often discarded immediately because they are so small and cheap – they cost fractions of pennies.
“Depending on how aware the staff are that handle them, they either sweep them into drainage channels to get them off the factory floor or they get dumped onto forecourts or in open bins so can easily be lost into the environment.”
Nurdles are typically white and opaque, and resemble fish eggs. It is known that birds and fish ingest them.
“A long-running project is using North Sea fulmars as an indicator for pellet contamination in the environment, as these birds feed exclusively at sea,” says Tanya.
“They perform autopsies on the fulmars and count the number of pellets in the stomach.”
OSPAR, a commission set up by 15 governments and the EU to focus on the marine environment, has reported that 95 per cent of fulmars studied in the North Sea region have microplastics in their stomach – and the average number of pellets was, astonishingly, 33.
“Microplastics in general are known to attract background environmental toxins – things like DDT, for example, and PBTs – persistent bioaccumulating toxins. They attract and concentrate on the surface of the plastic material due to its chemistry and nature,” says Tanya.
“Those chemicals have been shown to transfer to the bodily tissues of animals that ingest them and during the production of plastics, a lot of the additives used are toxic and can leach out. So plastics act as a sponge for background toxins and also leach inherent toxins.
“Some tests have shown pellets can concentrate toxins up to a million times the background level.”
Micro-organisms also colonise the surface of microplastics, causing them to sink and become embedded in the seabed, shoreline and plant matter. On the seabed, they can obstruct the flow of oxygen through sediment, causing the death of flora and fauna.
Animals that mistake pellets for food can suffer digestive issues.
“The pellets cause a false feeling of fullness, which reduces feeding ability or impacts feeding behaviour. Very tiny microplastics can be as small as two nanometres and have been shown to pass across membranes into bodily tissues,” explains Tanya.
“They have resulted in abnormal growths, impacted on reproductive ability and the chemicals associated with them have affected hormone regulation. There are all manner of impacts from a biodiversity point of view.
“At the last count, there were more than 300 species known to be impacted.”
And, of course, at the top of the food chain are humans.
“The implications for human health are being investigated with increasing fervour around the world,” says Tanya.
“Defra has instructed the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health to investigate this further as part of its announcement to legislate on microbeads.
“But we don’t yet understand the chemical implications from the toxins associated with microplastics.”
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium suggested those who eat shellfish are consuming up to 11,000 plastic fragments each year. While it is believed we absorb less than one per cent of them, it is feared they will accumulate in the body over time.
The figure has been challenged by others but it’s clear that if mussels are on your plate, there’s a fair chance you’ll be eating a dose of plastic too.
“There is a high incidence of shellfish eating microplastics and we tend to eat the entire organism,” says Tanya.
Another study by Plymouth University, released last August, found plastic in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. A 2011 study of Dublin Bay prawns in the Clyde, Scotland, which are used in scampi, found 83 per cent had ingested microplastics, as had 63 per cent of brown shrimp tested in the Channel and southern region of the North Sea.
As yet, the impact on human health is not clear. But as we consume more plastic as a society, we are – in the most literal sense – consuming more plastic as individuals.
“Plastic production has skyrocketed in one generation,” says Tanya. “In the 1970s, we produced something like 50 million tonnes of plastics. In 2015, we produced more than 300 million tonnes of plastics. Not only are production rates soaring but the shift in practice to disposable, single-use plastic items is propagating this accumulation in the environment.”
FFI’s approach is to stop the problem at source.
“We started working with trade associations and polymer producers to understand how these pellets are lost to the environment and what the most effective solutions are,” explains Tanya.
The organisation encouraged the industry to adopt the Operation Clean Sweep guidelines established in the United States in the 1990s, which aim to prevent plastic pellets, flakes and powders passing into rivers and seas.
Associations including PlasticsEurope and the British Plastics Federation signed up and, with FFI’s help, more of their members are now on board.
“In the last two to three years, we’ve seen an absolute change in practice and so many more polymer producers have implemented it properly,” says Tanya.
“The next challenge is to see how it can be rolled out industry-wide – to the haulage companies that transport the pellets, the storage facilities where they are kept prior to manufacturing, the converters and manufacturers and then the buyers of plastics. We are looking at improving conditions in supply chains and the use of standards.
“With voluntary practices in the past it’s been very difficult to ensure a level playing field. So we’ve asked the European Commission to consider legislation as part of its Plastics Strategy being launched later this year, which sits within the Circular Economy package.”
In December, the commission is due to publish its plans to address three challenges in the plastics industry: the high dependence on virgin fossil feedstock, the low rate of recycling and reuse of plastics and the significant leakage of plastics into the environment.
While the commission could update the Industrial Emissions Directive to demand all plastics producers sign up for Operation Clean Sweep, FFI points out this would have limited impact, as most of the larger companies have already done so. “We are asking for the commission to look at a supply chain standard, drawing comparison to the regulations for certified timber across Europe,” says Tanya.
Whatever becomes EU law may not apply, of course, in a post-Brexit Britain.
“There is a question over how all the environmental policies will be transposed into UK law if and when Brexit is realised but in addition to talking to the commission we are talking to the team at Defra,” says Tanya. “We submitted evidence to the UK consultation on microplastics in February.”
The UK has now committed to banning microbeads, and the government is considering what to do about pellets.
“There is real interest from Defra in taking action,” says Tanya. “They quite like the idea of Operation Clean Sweep because it is an existing, globally-accepted set of best management practices.
“There are obvious environmental benefits but there are also benefits to businesses because it represents lost resources. There is also a real risk of slips and trips in the workplace with pellets on the floor.
“Improving training and signage and making tools available to clean up spills quickly are part of the recommendations in Operation Clean Sweep.”
FFI has also called for reinforced packaging for nurdles, which are often transported in one-tonne sacks that can be torn by forklift trucks.
As Attenborough suggested, it is clear that much can be done today. We can all reduce our plastic usage and ensure that we recycle. The industry can sign up to Operation Clean Sweep. Our politicians can use legislation to drive down the amount of plastic escaping into the environment.
Only then can we ensure we protect our Blue Planet.
• Look out for part two of this series in the Cambridge Independent edition of November 8-14, where we explore microplastics and microbeads in everyday products.
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More by this authorPaul Brackley