An estimated 170 trillion plastic particles weighing about 2 million metric tons are currently afloat in the oceans across the world, according to a new study.

What are microplastics?

  • Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length.
  • They cause pollution by entering natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, food packaging, and industrial processes.
  • Microplastics are particularly harmful to the oceans as they don’t readily break down into harmless molecules and adversely affect the health of marine organisms, which mistake plastic for food.
  • Moreover, these particles can trigger loss of biodiversity and threaten ecosystem balance.

Findings of the new study

  • From 1990 to 2005, the number of plastic particles more or less fluctuated.
  • One of the reasons for this could be due to the effective implementation of important policy measures at the time.
  • In the 1980s and 90s, there were some international policies, like MARPOL Annex 5 that enforced laws against dumping trash at sea.
  • The concentration of plastic particles including microplastics in the ocean has skyrocketed in the oceans since the mid-2000s, and it continues to increase.
  • If the world fails to take any drastic action about the issue, there will be a 2.6-fold increase in plastic flowing into aquatic environments by 2040.
  • Impact of microplastics on the oceans and marine life
  • Ingestion of such particles can cause mechanical problems, such as lacerations and blockages to internal systems.
  • Ingested plastics can cause chemical problems by leaching absorb chemicals into organisms.
  • Microplastics absorb many hydrophobic compounds, like DDT, PCBs and other industrial chemicals, and evidence shows they can be released when ingested.
  • Microplastics can also disrupt the carbon cycle of the oceans.
  • Normally, phytoplankton absorbs carbon and are eaten by zooplankton, who excrete the carbon in the form of faecal pellets that sink to the sea floor.
  • Once these carbon-containing pellets reach there, the carbon can be remineralized into rocks — preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere.
  • But if zooplanktons consume microplastics, their faecal pellets sink at a much slower rate.
  • They are more likely to break apart or be eaten by other animals making it less likely that the carbon will reach the seafloor and become permanently sequestered.

Way forward:

  • There is an urgent need to implement a global resolution to limit the production of single-use, throwaway plastic.
  • Cities should be responsible for managing their waste so it does not leave their territory.
  • We need to reduce the amount of chemical additives in new plastic products.
  • There have to be requirements that recycled plastic be used in new products.
  • Industries have to legally be required to put at least 75% recycled plastic in any new product.


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