Everything, Everywhere

The big problem with microplastics.

microplastics
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Microplastics are everywhere. Shed from items like clothing, tires, and broken-down trash or produced in factories, the tiny pieces of plastic debris have been the subject of a number grabby headlines as of late, which proclaim they’ve infiltrated the farthest reaches of the ocean, the snows of Antarctica, the air we breathe, and even human blood. Sardonic jokes about the number of microplastics humans consume unknowingly (about a credit card’s worth each week, to be exact) have even started to enter the meme-o-sphere.

Scientists have found that the plastics can lower sperm counts and cause damage to human cells and that they harm the reproductive systems and livers of fish. But there are still huge gaps in the research about the problems these toxin-filled particles might pose. Despite the growing awareness that we are constantly awash in a sea of microplastics (and the fact that scientists have known about their presence in the ocean since the 1970s), there’s still not even a standardized system for monitoring them—something that researchers and government officials in California have been working to change.

In February, California became the first state in the union to release a comprehensive strategy for understanding—and hopefully decreasing—its levels of microplastic pollution. Approved by the California Ocean Protection Council, the plan aims to establish a statewide monitoring network for microplastics, which would be used to set safety thresholds for drinking water and to further understand the particles’ health and environmental implications. The plan also lays out ambitious goals to cut down on the sources of microplastics and to research exactly how they’ve managed to infiltrate almost every part of our environment.

That research has already started in the labs of Andrew Gray, an assistant professor of watershed hydrology at UC Riverside. Focused on the Southern California Bight—which extends from southwestern Santa Barbara County to San Diego and represents one of the most heavily urbanized areas in the United States—Gray’s team is looking into how microplastics travel through the watersheds that wind their way through urban areas. “Stormflow discharge from rivers is one of the largest agents of plastic pollution in general—not just microplastics—from the terrestrial sphere to the oceans,” says Gray.

Using collection systems set up in rivers and storm channels, Gray and his researchers capture the tiny plastics with extremely fine-mesh nets as they flow toward the sea. Once the samples are returned to the lab, a chemical “digestion” process helps to remove organic material, leaving behind a colorful sprinkling of plastic particles. These can then be analyzed and separated by type, giving researchers a sense of where they came from—clothing fibers, tires, and cigarette filters are all common sources.

While it’s difficult to determine the exact place that a piece of microplastic came from, having a better understanding of the “ingredients” in the plastic soup that surrounds us will play a critical role in determining the measures we need to take to eliminate them. Once they’ve entered the environment, microplastics are incredibly difficult—if not impossible—to clean up on a large scale, and the consensus among most scientists is that source reduction is a top priority.

“[Microplastics] are too small, even when you have relatively low concentrations of particles compared to natural mineral and organic sediment in water bodies, and you’re not going to be able to get them out,” says Gray. “We can’t remediate our way out of this problem.”

Cutting down on plastics will be no small task, though. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the demand for single-use plastics—including medical waste generated by hospitals, personal protective equipment, and packaging from online shopping—to spike. As society moves away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, powerful oil and gas companies are pushing hard for a further expansion of the plastics market, as they look to shift their resources toward petrochemical production. In late April, the California attorney general’s office announced that it would launch an investigation into the role the fossil fuel industry has played in exacerbating plastic-waste pollution.

Leaders of the Reusable LA coalition say that a recent campaign to ban single-use foodware and expanded polystyrene (a type of styrofoam) in L.A. County incited a backlash disinformation campaign from industry groups like the American Chemistry Council and the Consumer Brands Association, which told business owners that plastic alternatives were too costly and wouldn’t keep food fresh. While the measure still succeeded in passing, Reusable LA cochair Emily Parker says reducing plastic use on a larger scale will require deeper systemic reforms and, ultimately, a cultural shift.

“Unfortunately, the reliance on disposables has created a culture where we value convenience over the health of our own bodies, or the health of our neighbors, or the health of our environment,” says Parker. “What we envision is a system where every person, no matter who they are, has access to safe and reusable alternatives that aren’t going to make them sick and that aren’t polluting the environment.”

Meanwhile, as California scientists and public officials continue their work to map the scale of the microplastics problem, some major plastic-reduction solutions are already seeing success at the state level. Last month, California lawmakers passed a bill that will require a 25 percent reduction in single-use plastic packaging and foodware over the next decade. Though some environmental groups worry that last-minute negotiations did too much to appease industry groups, the bill still represents the toughest plastic-reduction policy in the nation and could have ripple effects far beyond the borders of the state.

Alexis Jackson, ocean policy and plastics lead for the oceans program of the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy, says that while the plastic problem often feels overwhelming, she’s hopeful about the progress that’s happening around reducing microplastics (and plastic usage in general) in California. She just hopes that the rest of the world gets the memo, too.

“If we figure it out in California, can that scale to other states? Can that scale to other countries so that we get traction pretty quickly on this?” she asks. “I just don’t think we have the time to take a city-by-city, county-by-county approach on this issue. I think we have to be thinking, How can we take a state-by-state or nation-by-nation kind of approach?”•

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