In the last few years, you may have noticed the term "microplastics" in the news. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic from discarded plastic bottles, bags and containers that end up in rivers, lakes and oceans.Because they are so tiny and hard to see, researchers set sail to collect water samples and estimate the amount of plastic in the ocean. The 5 Gyres Institute, an organization aimed at reducing plastics pollution in our oceans, estimates that 296,000 tons of plastic are floating in the world's oceans. But, if you think that oceans are the only water bodies with a microplastics problem, think again-the problem is also reported in the Chesapeake Bay, in our own backyard.
In a partnership with the 5 Gyres Institute, Trash Free Maryland took to the Chesapeake Bay in November to study the presence of microplastics in the water. Setting out from Deale, Md., the research team collected seven samples by dragging a trawl for an hour at a time. The trawl was fitted with a cone-shaped net, whose holes measure 330 microns wide, about the width of two to three strands of human hair. Water flows through the main opening and the fine mesh of net ensures anything suspended in the water is trapped behind.
In seven samples, the net picked up algae, trash, foam and plastic. According to the 5 Gyres Institute representative, the first sample collected contained almost 10 times the amount of plastic than would be collected in a typical ocean sample. The plastic found in the Chesapeake Bay samples included bits of bags, tarps/sheeting, fishing line and microbeads, which are small plastic scrubbers found in face wash, toothpaste and cleaning products.
Microbeads in particular are a major source of microplastics pollution worldwide. Microbeads are small enough to bypass water treatment systems' filters and end up in waterways. Scientists warn that chemicals and toxins absorbed by microbeads and other microplastics could be passed on to organisms who mistake them for food and eat them, and could then be passed up higher and higher on the food chain, eventually reaching humans. The threat posed by microbeads prompted legislative bans on their production in several states, including Maryland. A similar bill has been written by Virginia's legislators for the current session.
Ending microplastic pollution starts at home. Take action to prevent further microplastic pollution:
Recycle plastic. Make sure bins are not overfilled; windblown plastic ends up in waterways.
Buy household products that do not contain microbeads. Read ingredient labels carefully: polypropylene and polyethylene are chemical names for plastic microbeads.
Use reusable bags, cups, and utensils. Avoid using plastic straws.
Learn more about HB 1697, which bans the manufacture or sale of microbeads starting in 2018, online at http://1.usa.gov/1QlqRDi.
Editor's note: This article concludes a four-part series regarding the impact of storm water pollution, as well as how individual families and communities can prevent contributing to contamination to local waterways. The author, Tiffany Lee, will produce additional storm water articles for future issues of the Pentagram, but is interested in reader feedback. Readers may contact Ms. Lee with comments and suggestions for future articles at: firstname.lastname@example.org.