Nowadays, human beings use a large amount and variety of plastics in their daily life, which turns out to be unnecessary as well as very harmful to the environment, especially for aquatic saltwater or marine ecosystems.
Most plastics are visible, but there is a large part of them that, due to their small size, go unnoticed, forming part of many products of daily use in our homes and with a high degree of contamination. These are microplastics, as unknown as they are dangerous, and in this Green Ecologist article we explain what are microplastics: definition and types, as well as the problems they cause to the natural environment.
Is about small synthetic particles that come from petroleum derivatives. They are hardly degradable and their origin is found in industrial activity and domestic consumption, being present in detergents, toothpastes, in skin products such as exfoliants and sunscreens and even in many synthetic fibers of clothing, among others. Since these products are for daily consumption and are always used in contact with water, the microplastics they contain are dumped steadily into our wastewater.
The problem is that these materials are toxic, abrasive and difficult to treat in the filtration of treatment plants due to their small size, since the size of microplastics is less than 5mm. Therefore, these polluting particles end up being discharged into rivers, seas and oceans, causing serious damage to a large part of the natural environment.
The presence of microplastics is practically invisible to the human eye, and that is why most of the population does not realize how harmful they can be to those who ingest them, from invertebrates to fish, birds and aquatic mammals. . These wastes have been accumulating uncontrollably in the environment for four decades, accounting for more than 50% of the millions of tons of plastic that are dumped annually to the sea.Image: minsknews.by
Because microplastics are used in a wide range of products, they have been manufactured in a wide variety of types and shapes depending on their application.
Today these synthetic compounds are classified into two categories, primary and secondary. The primary microplastics They are considered as those that, after use, reach the natural environment in their original form, that is, in the same state in which they have been synthesized. This type is mostly in the form of granules (microspheres) so once they are used, they drain down the drain and due to their small size, they get lost between the filters and are not treated in the treatment plants. A good example would be particles that are in exfoliating gels and toothpastes.
On the other hand, secondary microplastics they have their origin in the degradation of other plastic products. Therefore, this means that they come from the fragmentation of large synthetic structures or, from the release of fibers during the washing of fabrics, garments and carpets (microfibers).
Both categories are extremely toxic and persistent in the middle. This is mainly due to the origin of its components, made up mainly of two types of plastic. First, polyethylene (PE), is a component that is not very degradable but is very simple and inexpensive to synthesize, not to mention that it is the most widely used plastic component worldwide, such as in plastic bags, plastic bottles, some cosmetics and soaps. The second is polypropylene (PP), normally used to make plugs and synthetic fibers of garments and other textile fabrics.
There are more derived plastics that contribute to the microplastic contamination, such as polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl (PV) or nylon, which act with the same toxicity and abrasiveness on the environment as those mentioned above.
As already mentioned above, nowadays an adequate management is not carried out for the treatment of microplastics in sewage treatment plants due to their small size. Thus, once these small particles leave the treatment plants, they spread uncontrollably through rivers, seas and oceans.
Many of the organisms that live in or near these areas, especially fish, birds, mammals and invertebrates, are severely affected by microplastics. In the case of small invertebrates (zooplankton, phytoplankton, etc.), they ingest microfibers and microspheres in suspension, believing that it is food, since normally there are organic remains in suspension on which they feed.
Thus, these beings are subsequently ingested by other fish, mollusks, birds and larger mammals, with which microplastics accumulate in their digestive systems until their body exceeds the tolerance limit for the toxicity of these components, for what die and little by little biodiversity is reduced. At this point, experts are worriedly investigating what effects can we have if we eat microplastics, by eating these animals.
These small plastics began to be synthesized more than forty years ago, but they continue to reach the marine environment continuously. Some type of management should already have been applied that involves reducing this large number of components, but the world does not seem to realize the serious consequences that pollution of seas and oceans implies, so many regulatory measures are still missing.
England and the United States were the forerunners in ban many of the cosmetics, toothpastes, gels and detergents that include microplastics in their formulas, especially in granule form. Other countries such as Canada, Sweden, France and Belgium have been operating for a couple of years with similar prohibitions and regulations.
We, as ordinary citizens, can use certain measures to prevent this type of pollution. The main one is a very simple task since there are many organizations such as Greenpeace that publish annual lists of products and companies that use these harmful components. Therefore, once we have learned which products contain these pollutants, we can avoid buying them, in addition to informing those people who still do not know what are microplastics and what harm do they do to the environment.
Also, here below, you can see a video from our YouTube channel about the problem posed by plastics in the sea.Image: swr.de
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