Microbeads and the Plastic Smog: How We’re Saving Our Seas

“Well, you don’t have cavities, but there’s plastic wedged between your teeth,” is what dentists are saying to many patients these days. It’s on your face, too, and traveling through your body. Microplastics are creating a smog of synthetic waste that’s permeating the global ocean, and some of it begins in your bathroom sink.

After sailing around the world skimming the ocean surface with fine-mesh nets to capture plastic trash, we pooled our data with other scientists and published the first estimate of plastic pollution of all sizes drifting globally, amounting to 269,000 metric tons from 5.25 trillion individual pieces, of which 92% of it is microplastic smaller than a grain of rice. We’ve found microplastic on beaches worldwide, in ice cores, and vertically downward into seafloor sediments.

You can rid your mind of conceptions of “trash islands” or “garbage patches” and visualize the global spread of microplastic in the ocean the same way we could literally see smog over our cities. Air pollution is a particulate of carbon, swirling with atmospheric currents and slowly settling to the ground. Plastic smog is a particulate of hydrocarbon swirling with ocean currents and settling to the seafloor. It’s the same thing. What follows is the same solution. The successful emissions controls to clean air equate to “emission controls” on land to prevent the flow of trash to the sea. Those fanciful ideas to net ocean plastic are hogwash, and even a distraction from the uphill fight to prevent the problem and phase out the worst-offending plastic products.

But what can be done to stop microplastics from taking over the planet? Isn’t this the penultimate Tragedy of the Commons? With tremendous difficulty to identify what products are polluting the ocean, much less point to a country as the culprit, what —> Read More