UNITED KINGDOM — Until recent days, human beings were thought to be one of the largest groups of contributors to pollutants in the marine life by dumping trash, not utilizing pumpout stations, and other boating- and non-boating-related activities. While this may be mostly true, it seems a small shrimp inhabiting the coastal areas of Northern and Western Europe, an amphipod called Orchestia gammerellus, is presenting a potential hazard to the ocean’s ecosystem by turning plastic materials into microplastics, which have potentially deadly effects on other marine organisms.
Plastics, such as remnants from biodegradable and non-biodegradable grocery bags, make up one of these tiny shrimps’ favorite food groups. A study conducted by University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom found that the shrimp were breaking down the plastics into microplastics that spread thousands of malignant little shards across the marine layer, in some cases causing lethal effects on marine life.
Prof. Richard Thompson, one of the collaborators on the study of Orchestia gammerellus and a leader of the marine biology team that coined the term “microplastics” in 2004, stated, “these fragments can measure a fraction of a millimeter in length, and be less than the width of a human hair.”
Litter, especially from plastics, is a problem the state of California has been trying to remedy for some time with bans on plastic bags and other initiatives to clean up the coastline. Several large patches of marine debris, such as “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “Pacific Trash Vortex,” was first described in a paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1988.
Among some of the solutions to this problem are reducing plastic use and participating in beach clean-up days to make sure our waterfronts stay safe for wildlife and humans alike.
“Reducing any unnecessary use of plastic is important, for example the ban on single-use plastic. Also, it is essential to make sure we dispose of end-of-life plastic property and do not allow it to litter the environment,” Thompson told The Log. “[It is of] key importance is to make sure plastic products are designed to maximize potential for end-of-life recovery, for instance by recycling.”
While individuals can do small things to begin remedying the effects of plastics on the environment, Thompson said a larger discussion about design concepts of plastics as well as an emphasis on recycling is necessary.
“It would also be impractical to suggest the way to address the issue of fibers getting into the environment from washing machines would be to ban people from washing their clothes,” Professor Thompson stated. “The problem needs to be tackled right from the design stage so that we manufacture products with proper consideration of the environmental impact during production, use and disposal. So, in short, we need to extend producer awareness and responsibility.”
For more information about protecting and cleaning up the California coastline, visit calrecycle.ca.gov.