Microplastics In Our Oceans Are Highly Diverse – Recognizing Their Variety May Help Us Find Solutions

Source: Hakai Magazine/Chloe Williams 

Photo: Brian Yurasits

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The oceans contain a medley of tiny plastic fragments. In a sample of seawater, scientists might find thin fibers, degraded fragments, and a slurry of particles that are too small to see. Yet every piece of this plastic soup goes by the same name: microplastics. And according to researchers, this catch-all term is muddling our understanding of a complex class of environmental pollutants.

Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere they have looked, from Arctic sea ice to the ocean’s depth. Yet these plastic particles, defined as pieces smaller than five millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser), are as varied as they are rampant. They can be spherical, fibrous, irregularly shaped, or foamy. And they can be made of hundreds—if not thousands—of different plastic polymers, each with its own chemical properties. “There are almost infinite combinations,” says Kennedy Bucci, a graduate student at the University of Toronto in Ontario who coauthored a recent paper on the diversity of microplastics.

The problem, Bucci says, is that policymakers and journalists tend to group all microplastics under the same umbrella. Research suggests, however, that different microplastics actually affect organisms in different ways. Conflating them oversimplifies the research, confuses public perceptions, and makes it difficult to develop effective solutions.

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Photo: Brian Yurasits