Plastic in the Ocean. Microplastic in Your Fish.

by Robin Madel

Published: 6/06/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

Of the 33 million tons of plastic trash generated in the United States in 2014, we recycled less than 10 percent of it. Over half went to the landfill. Some of it ended up in our waterways and, eventually, into our oceans. There’s so much plastic in the oceans now that it’s hard to find a beach that is untouched by it. This is a lot to think about as we approach World Oceans Day on June 8.

By some estimates almost 13 million metric tons of plastic make their way into the ocean every year, and quite a bit of that is in the form of little, tiny pieces. In fact, the little pieces are the most prevalent marine debris found in the ocean. They come in all shapes and sizes and the really small pieces — those particles less than about five millimeters (the size of a sesame seed) — are called “microplastics,” and they’re a real problem for those of us who like to consume the products of the sea.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, the majority of which include degradation from larger plastic pieces (like plastic shopping bags that are used once and thrown away). They also come from microbeads in over 100 brands of cosmetics and personal care products (for those who like to slather plastic all over their bodies), and strands of synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester that come off in the laundry (by some estimates as many as 700,000 microscopic strands per wash!)

What’s Being Done About Microplastics?

  • Microbeads were fortunately banned in 2015 and, starting this year, will begin being phased out of cosmetics and personal care items. And another form of microbeads — glitter (yes glitter!) — has recently been recognized as a problem.
  • Clothing manufacturers are just starting to address the microstrands problem, such as the development of this clothing bag to help prevent synthetic clothing from shedding in your laundry.
  • Plastic bag bans are showing slow progress across the country. Unfortunately, some states just refuse to get on board and have gone as far as banning plastic bag bans. I guess some people don’t mind a healthy dose of plastics with their fish, shellfish or even their sea salt.

How to Keep Plastics Out of Your Fish

While it might be hard to find fish without any trace of plastic particles in it (even fish from the Great Lakes), you can take steps now that will help keep microplastics from entering our waterways, our seafood and our salt.

  1. Ditch the microbeads. This one is easy. Read the labels and ingredient lists on your personal care products. If there are microbeads, stop using them right now and don’t buy them in the future. For that matter, reconsider your use of glitter. A little sprinkle of fun now could mean a lifetime of trouble for oysters and the people who eat them. Consider using glittery natural minerals instead.
  2. Ban plastic bags in your life. Choose alternatives to plastic bags — reusable shopping bags, backpacks, boxes, carts — whatever it takes to get you off of plastic bags. And if you do use plastic bags once in a while, reuse them as much as you can before you recycle them.
  3. Wear natural fabrics as much as possible, wash your clothes a little less and use a clothing bag to trap the particles when you wash clothes. It can be hard to find clothing made without synthetic fibers, but it’s worth the hunt for them. Washing your clothes a little less will help keep their fibers from washing into waterways and will help extend the life of your clothing. Also, higher quality garments shed less than lower quality garments, so it pays to be choosy.
  4. Recycle absolutely everything. Many plastics are easily recycled but of the 89 million tons of waste that was recycled in 2014, only 3.5 percent was plastic. We can do better. Find out what recycling is available through your waste management company or municipal waste service and start separating your recyclables from your trash. Our fish (and sea salt) are depending on it.

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