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The fish supper is as old an English tradition as Bank Holiday boozing, going out on penalties in the football or Christmas crackers, but sadly it may not be very good for us. The reason? Microplastics, namely. According to the US' National Ocean Service, ocean microplastics are "small plastic pieces less than five millimetres long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life."
They come in many forms but are mostly found in cosmetics, cleaning products and even toothpastes, though they can also be created as a by-product of abrasive industrial sandblasting.
Microplastics are ingested by marine life - and could end up on our plates. Credit: PA
To date, the full extent of their impact on marine life is unknown, but it seems quite likely that they are doing damage to our friends (and enemies; looking at you here, sharks) in the sea. Research by Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed this year that 24 species of fish, molluscs, birds, crustaceans and mammals can be affected when they ingest microplastic particles.
And from a non-shellfish, more selfish point of view, if plastics are entering the food chain down under (in the sea, not Australia), it's possible they will ultimately end up on our plates, posing a threat to human health. Research into this is still at a relatively early stage, but it looks as if our ongoing use of, and reliance at all levels on production and consumption is doing further damage to ourselves and the planet.
It seems highly possible, therefore, that these micro-buggers could ultimately end up on our plates - more reason than ever to feel rightly worried that what we're flushing into our oceans may in turn come to slap us in the face like a wet fish. With research a lengthy and expensive process, it would seem smart to look for a cultural sea change in the interim, one that doesn't leave the oceans filled with mutant microplastics and our seas filled to the gills with plastic.
Credit: Laura (Creative Commons)
On a more day-to-day, visible level, our overreliance on plastics is having a very tangible effect on wildlife. In 2015 a weak sei whale was spotted swimming upriver in Virginia, USA, far from the ocean. It transpired that the creature had swallowed a DVD case. An unusual occurrence, but nonetheless this is an example of an increasingly common problem affecting sea life, including birds. Speaking to LADBible, Natalie Fee of City to Sea says: "With plastic bags and other products, animals are mistaking them for food and consuming them, which is why we're seeing a decline in the number of albatross and seabirds."
To date, over 200 species including turtles, dolphins and whales have been found to have consumed plastics. Louisa Casson, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, commented on the effects that plastic which makes its way into the sea has on marine life:
"Once plastic is in the ocean it can cause all kinds of harm to marine life. Studies have shown that 90% of seabirds and one in three turtles have eaten plastic. The big bits, like bottles, bags and packaging, can choke and entangle marine life. Then over time these big pieces break down into microplastics - tiny pieces which can be eaten by creatures big and small, clogging their guts, spreading toxic chemicals, and entering every level of the food chain.
Plastics can harm marine life even before they break down. Credit: USFWS - Pacific Region (Creative Commons)
"Even if you're someone who's not too fussed about what happens to marine life, this stuff is starting to find its way onto our plates in seafood. If you ate a plate of oysters, you're likely to have consumed around 50 pieces of microplastics. Scientists are urgently trying to figure out what kind of impact that could be having on human health."
Numerous studies have been carried out in this area in recent months and years. Research in Germany, for example, found synthetic fibres and fabrics in 24 brands of beer, while a team of scientists at Plymouth University discovered that a single washing machine cycle could release up to 700,000 microplastic fibres into the environment.
To date, it remains a mystery as to how microplastics find their way into our drinking water, though it's believed detritus (in the form of microfibres and plastics) from washing machines and dryers may be in part responsible, while being far from the only source.
Meanwhile, Orb, a media company which focuses on eight core topics, one of which is the environment, carried out research which has found that many countries' tap water was highly contaminated with microplastics. The US, for example, had a whopping 94 percent contamination rate while the UK's stood at a lower, though still high, level of 72 percent, alongside Germany and France.
A ban on microbeads is due to come into effect in 2017, with various companies voluntarily offering to phase them out by 2020. In the interim, consumers may want to check labels to see if they are microplastic-free, by looking for words such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polymethylmethacrylate on the labels.
But its not just tiny particles of plastic that are causing danger to ourselves, the oceans and marine life.
As Natalie says, "Cotton buds, wet wipes, condoms, sanitary and fag butts are full of plastic... when our sewage system is blocked because of all the things we're flushing down that we shouldn't, that means the sewage overflows into our waterways and seas. Our sewage system can cope well with pee, poo and paper, but when you fill it up with other things it then gets very blocked and they have to release the overflow pipes which is how a lot of plastic is released into our waterways."
Plastic washed ashore in Denmark. Credit: PA
People are basically 'using their toilet like a bin', leading to ever more pollution in the sea, much of which washes up on land. Meanwhile, 80 percent (or 9m tonnes) of plastic in the sea originally comes from land-based sources.
Of course, this doesn't extend to seafood, as the argument about whether microplastics are entering the food chain is ongoing, but in the interim at least, you'd be best advised to read packaging while on the bog, or in the shower, or brushing your teeth. Just make sure you're not doing all three at the same time. That would be mucky.
In any case, this is about more than whether or not you're a big fan of animals. If our cultural reliance on plastic isn't tempered, it's highly likely to come back and bite us in the ass eventually.
Words: Ronan O'Shea
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