In April an international team of researchers published the study that Arctic ice algae is heavily contaminated with microplastics that seep into the food web. The research team collected samples of the algae and the surrounding water from ice floes during an expedition with the research vessel Polarstern in the summer of 2021.The team consisting of Steve Allen, of the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University, Canada, analysed them for microplastic content, finding that the clumps of algae contained about 10 times the concentration of the surrounding water. In an exclusive interview with Let Me Breathe ahead of the World Environment Day 2023. Dr Allen outlines the perils of microplastics and why plastic pollution needs immediate attention
What are microplastics and why is it such a big threat?
Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that have been either broken off larger pieces or are made as tiny spheres for cosmetics and toothpaste. They are also used as an abrasive in cleaning products and even makeup. The problem is we don’t know what this will do to us and every other living creature on the planet. We know it has a toxic effect on animals, plants and even algae which could have far reaching effects.
Tell us about your work around microplastics. How long have you been studying it and what have been some of the startling revelations of the past five years?
I have been studying microplastics with Dr Deonie Allen (my wife) since I started my PhD in 2018. I mainly focus on atmospheric transport and other ways it can move through our environment. My first research was to show that microplastics was travelling long distances through the atmosphere. I then showed it was coming back out of the sea and that it was up very high in the free troposhere above the clouds. Microplastic pollution has been shown to be at the poles, Mount Everest, and recently in human placental serum, breast milk and infant first poo. It is everywhere.
How much plastic is transported every year between the air and marine environment?
We don’t yet know how much is moving around. The true severity of how much plastic has leaked or deliberately been thrown into nature is only now becoming hinted at. The estimates of 12 million tonnes going into the ocean every year through rivers is just one avenue into the environment. Our recent research into recycling plant release of plastics into rivers reveals staggering amounts being released from even a state of the art plant. As much as 6% of the plastic that goes in, leaks out as tiny particles.
Tell us how this makes the case around microplastics more worrying for not just humans but biodiversity as well?
When small creatures eat, they usually take a large piece and digest it to break it down in their gut. With plastic the particle does not break down so it can’t pass through the animal. This blocks their system leading to starvation. In a few invertebrates that is unfortunate. But with trillions of plastic particles the effects could be severe. Our recent work on microplastics in Arctic Melosira (the algae that grows under the sea ice) show large numbers being trapped in the algae. We know plastics can have a detrimental effect on algae so this is worrying. The food chain of the ocean starts with such algae as a food source for plankton and other animals. It also captures carbon so the effects are worrying.
What kind of global strategy and stakeholder participation do we need to handle the challenges posed by microplastics in the environment?
This problem needs urgent attention. Unfortunately the fix is not going to be easy as it is the producers of plastic and governments that need to act. The best that we can do is to use our vote to influence politicians and use our feet to influence producers. The only good plastic is plastic that does not get made. That includes all the bioplastics and biodegradable plastics. They are not the solution.
What does the future entail in terms of the fight against plastic pollution?
The public is not the problem but we have to make it the problem of the politicians and producers.