Issue 2, Winter 2019

Microplastic is no small problem

12 Dec 2019  | 


There’s a new enemy in the fight against plastic pollution and one which potentially is having more of an impact on our health, and that of the creatures of the Earth. 

Microplastics is the latest environmental threat which scientists are keen to draw to our attention. We know plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, but little did we realise that the process of this decomposition is leading to an even more disturbing danger. We have seen plastic bags and nets strangling marine life and birds. But now we are seeing more and more images of plastic fragments being found inside the stomachs of animals who are inadvertently ingesting them.

Alex McGoran is a PhD student at the Natural History Museum and Royal Holloway, University of London, and has been investigating the movement of plastic up the ‘food web’ in our British waterways. She explains what this is revealing. “When we think of microplastics, we tend to think of the beads in cosmetics, but it’s actually the fibres that are more of an issue. They are more abundant in wildlife.” 

One of the main culprits is our clothing. Most of what we wear is composed of man-made materials and in just one load of washing, an estimated 700,000 microfibres are released. Alex has a solutions-focused approach to her work. “Just putting a filter in your wash will help stop hundreds of thousands of fibres entering the waterways, around the country and around the world.”

Alex explains the plastic-containing wet wipes and sanitary products flushed down toilets also find their way into our rivers and subsequently, into the aquatic animals that live there. “We need to think about the alternatives and a way to responsibly dispose of these products.” The Thames River even has wet wipe ‘reefs’ that have grown by a metre in just one year. Volunteers from an environmental charity recently recovered some 23,000 wet wipes in one small stretch of the river.

Alex McGoran

“Recently, scientists found that microplastics were present in all UK rivers,” she says. The Mersey was so contaminated, it was estimated there was more microplastic in it than in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is one of the world’s five giant collections of marine debris.

At least 200 species are believed to be ingesting plastic in their natural environments. Alex’s own river research found microplastics (pieces less than 5mm) in crabs and fish. Plastics cause cuts and bruising to creatures, and the chemicals and dyes in them can be carcinogenic and inhibit normal hormone function.

“Plastic doesn’t just appear in the ocean, it has to get there. 80% of the plastic in the ocean is from land-based sources. One more threat to the environment could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Alex has been researching microplastics for four years in the estuaries of the River Thames in London and the Clyde in Glasgow. She published the first evidence for fish in the Thames ingesting plastic. You can follow her on Twitter: @AlexMcGoran and for ways to help reduce the amount of microfibres released in your washing, check out www.guppyfriend.com and www.coraball.com