We have all heard of microplastics and their detrimental effects on various ecosystems. You may have seen these effects first-hand, or dedicated time to reducing your plastic consumption. Today, we’ll dive in and learn more about microplastics and feature some incredible research being done in the HEAL Lab at the University of California, Davis.
All About Microplastics
It’s no surprise that plastic is the most common type of trash found in the beautiful big blue (and great lakes, too). Unfortunately, plastic has been a huge part of humans’ lives since the early 1900s. Plastic is lightweight, space-efficient, cheap, easy to transport, and easily accessible. There are seven different kinds of main plastics in our world right now: Polypropylene (PP), low-density polyethylene (LD-PE), high-density polyethylene (HD-PE), Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Polyurethane (PUR). Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polystyrene (PS). Although these are the seven main types of plastic, there are others that can be altered, enhanced, or changed into various forms and colors with additives and other fillers.
The dictionary defines microplastics as, “extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.” Microplastics are generally smaller than 5mm in length and come from various places. This type (or size) of plastic can form from larger pieces of plastic, or be created and manufactured as microbeads (polyethylene) or resin pellets. In 2004, Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, UK created the term “microplastics.”
Photo Source: Merlin N. Issac & Balasubramanian Kandasubramanian
Negative Effects On Wildlife
Plastic is a huge problem for wildlife in all areas of the planet. The problem with plastic is that it does not break down easily. However, larger plastics enter the ocean as litter and will fragment or break down from elements such as sun, wind, and waves. When this plastic breaks down into microplastics, it is ingested, intertwined, and omnipresent in all realms of wildlife and habitats in the ocean.
National Geographic talks about various effects on marine life, “they block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.” (National Geographic).
Scientists are still researching and discovering various effects of microplastics on marine health and human health. This research is dynamic and ongoing as amounts of microplastics increase in the ocean, and more time passes with this plastic concentrated in various aquatic systems. Now, let’s learn about one lab researching the field of microplastics and marine life!
Photo Source: Plymouth Marine Laboratory
The HEAL Lab at UC Davis
The HEAL Lab at UC Davis studies amounts and concentrations of microplastics, identifies microplastics, and gathers samples to analyze and determine their effects on particular animals and ecosystems. Within these main focuses, the lab aims to study the connection of species that rely on each other to keep life cycles balanced. This goal is two-fold and will help answer questions for wildlife as well as people.
The lab uses Raman Microspectroscopy for the identification of microplastic particles they obtain from samples. Dr. Jenessa and her team explain, “In our lab, we focus a laser beam composed of a single wavelength (ie. color) through a microscope onto the surface of a particle. When the light hits the surface, some of it loses or gains energy depending on the chemical structure of the particle. This creates light scatter of different wavelengths (ie. colors). We can then measure the intensity of each wavelength of the scattered light. The intensity of each wavelength (ie. color) of light is graphed to create a spectrum, which is very much like a fingerprint of the chemical structure of the particle. We can then compare this 'chemical fingerprint' to a database or library of known spectra (similar to a database of known fingerprints) to help us identify the chemical make-up of a particle!” (HEAL Lab, Facebook Verbiage).
A particular project within the HEAL lab looks at which marine mammal eats the most microplastics. This project’s data will serve as a jumping-off point for other studies that look at the big picture of microplastics. Scientists within the project are using samples collected at the Marine Mammal Center in California. These samples will aid the researchers in evaluating exposure to microplastic particles and comparing samples for future projects. Learn more about the project or donate here.
What Can We Do?
Plastic use has been increasing for quite some time. Plastic is present in many aspects of human life. Microplastics by nature are found in a variety of products such as cosmetics, clothing, bottles, and larger pieces of plastics. The best thing to do for marine life in regards to microplastic is to reduce your plastic consumption daily. Plastic can be dangerous to wildlife in infinite ways, even if it’s not microplastic. It is so important to prevent it from entering aquatic ecosystems. Simple changes and extra precautions such as cutting the loops of plastic beer-can holders and snipping the strings of disposable masks or other dangerous trash can help protect wildlife from getting entangled in waste.
For inspiration on small and large ways to reduce your consumption, read our previous blog posts, “Don’t Trash Our Planet” and “How to STAY Green: Changing Your Mindset.” Thanks for reading, and have a great week!
Written By: Bailey Higa
Interview by Dr. Jenessa Gjeltema, DVM