The oceans are filled with plastic. We know this, and we all know that it’s a large problem. What we do not understand is exactly how big the problem is.
A fluorescent dye can help scope from the smallest pieces of garbage in our marine surroundings, allowing researchers to map oceanic waste in unprecedented detail and only maybe help us find answers to this growing environmental crisis.
Waste that collects in gyres, frequently described as Great Garbage Patches, often shocks us with its sheer scale.
But it’s the tiny pieces we do not observe that are as much of a concern, if not more so.
Particles smaller than 5 millimetres (0.2 inches) known as microplastics can be found as small beads in makeup and cleaning products, fibers in clothing, or sort from bigger plastics breaking down.
Therefore, they are estimated to be a lot more abundant than the chunky bottles and floating bags we can see. How much more, nobody really knows.
Research headed by the University of Warwick in the UK has found a practical solution for discovering microplastics in field trials. They are not exactly easy to differentiate from different pieces of pure flotsam, in spite of a decent microscope.
As tempting as it is to consider these miniscule shreds of rubbish as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, they’re just a much of a problem for marine species as the turtle-choking plastic bags that bigger animals mistaken for tasty jellyfish.
Lately, researchers found coral polyps did not just swallow them up — they did so with love, seeming to actually like the flavor.
That is not to say the variety of plastic materials that shed persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) compounds into the food chain.
Preliminary tests on various plastic polymers showed the dye was up the task of helping microplastics stand out.
To make sure it didn’t highlight similar materials such as fatty substances or tiny wood fragments, they flushed samples with nitric acid, which proved efficient at digesting all kinds of biogenic matter.
From the field, the group took samples of beach sand and trawled the Surface water in the shore around the town of Plymouth and analysed them to get microplastics using both traditional methods and their staining technique.
They discovered that a much larger amount of microplastics under 1 millimetre (0.04 inches) in size than they’d predicted, and significantly greater than they’d have discovered using conventional approaches alone.
The number one culprit for all these hidden, smaller variety microplastics, seems to be polypropylene — the stiff polymers we use in all from sources to banknotes to packaging.
“Using this method, a massive collection of samples can be viewed and reviewed very quickly, to obtain large amounts of data on the amounts of small microplastics in seawater or, efficiently, in almost any environmental sample,” states Erni-Cassola.
Previous studies have determined that 99 percent of those plastic waste which we believe to be going into the sea can not be discovered, meaning it’s either too little to see or is concealing inside the digestive systems of marine life.
This new method appears to have spotted at least a portion of it.
“Have we found the missing 99 percent of missing plastic in surface oceans?” Inquires Joseph A. Christie-Oleza, a microbiologist and a co-author on the study.
“Obviously this technique has to be implemented in future scientific surveys to confirm our preliminary findings.”
Tracking the fate of microplastics will certainly help inform future policies on waste management and business regulations.