Much of the plastic in our oceans is so-called microplastic, which is often too small or hidden to be seen with the naked eye. Sunlight, bacteria, wave motion, seasonal changes, and other processes can change the properties of these microplastics. Collectively, these weathering processes slowly degrade microplastics to smaller sizes and chemical fragments.
"Weathering also leads to changes in the distribution of microplastics throughout the entire ocean surface, depth, and seafloor, with the possibility of entering seafood. Microplastics can get stuck in the gills, mouth, stomachs and the digestive system, making it hard for fish to breathe and eat", says Hans Peter Arp, principal engineer at NGI's division for Environmental Technology.
Hans Peter Arp and his colleagues from Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium, are performing a number of experiments and lab tests to learn about the distribution and influence of microplastics in the oceans. The research project WEATHER-MIC, which Hans Peter Arp and NGI are co-coordinating, belongs to the international Joint Programming Initiative Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans (JPI Oceans).
"The main purpose of our research is to improve the way we do environmental risk assessment for microplastics. For instance, there are changes in the behaviour and toxic response patterns of aquatic life exposed to microplastic that we are only beginning to understand. We aim to not only understand this better, but also how these responses change over time, as microplastics weather. We also aim to create more public awareness concerning this grave issue, so that the public, legislators and industry can better confront the impacts of plastic pollution in our oceans ", says Hans Peter Arp.
There are increasing media reports around the world of stranded mammals and seabirds that seem to have died because of having digested plastics. It is encouraging to see various initiatives, such as fishermen and public volunteers cleaning up plastic from the shores, or voluntary action on the part of industry. However, more research is needed as we are still in the early days of research on long-term consequences of microplastics on marine life.
"Ultimately, the solutions will have to come from innovation, infrastructure and society. On the innovation side, we need to make products that have a minimum risk for microplastic pollution. We need new waste-handling and recycling options that reduce microplastic emissions. It is unlikely that we will be plastic free in the future, but we must take action to counter the increasing amount of plastics in the oceans and the effects it has on our environment", says Hans Peter..
Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm. This can include extremely small plastic pieces used in household products (like microbeads in toothpaste), clothing fibres (like polyester), and large plastic pieces that degrade into smaller fragments (referred to as secondary microplastics).
Microplastics can accumulate in fish, birds and other marine life. Because they do not break down rapidly, the amount in the sea and fish will continue to accumulate, making the problem worse over time, until we manage to reduce the amount of plastic in the sea. Some of the extreme estimates even indicate that the amount of plastic in the sea will increase until there is more plastic than fish.
JPI Oceans (The Joint Programming Initiative Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans) was established in 2011 as a coordinating and integrating strategic platform. JPI Oceans is open to all EU member states and associated countries who invest in marine and maritime Research.
JPI Oceans has 21 participating countries, covers all European sea basins, and provides a long-term integrated approach to marine and maritime research and technology development in Europe.
WEATHER-MIC is one of four approved research projects following the 2014 JPI-Oceans Pilot Call on ecological effects of microplastics. The research project will investigate what happens to microplastics in the oceans over time, as well as how microplastics affect the ecosystems and environmental risk.
- Five partners from four European countries form the consortium running the WEATHER-MIC project. The research project runs from 2016 to 2018 and is funded through the national funding partners Project Management Juelich (PtJ, Germany), the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS, Sweden), The Research Council of Norway (RCN, Norway) and the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO, Belgium).