Amount of microplastics found on the seafloor has TRIPLED in just 20 years, study finds 


Amount of microplastics found on the seafloor has TRIPLED in just 20 years, study finds

  • Tiny pieces of plastic debris have been building up at a depth of more than 100m
  • Accumulation mimics the increasing amount of plastic products used by society
  • It shows the world is still ‘far from’ achieving a reduction in single-use plastic

The amount of microplastics found at the bottom of oceans has tripled in 20 years, researchers have found.

Tiny pieces of plastic debris – smaller than the human eye can see – have been building up on the sea floor at a depth of more than 100 metres, a study reveals.

Their accumulation mimics the increasing amount of plastic products used by society for things like packaging, bottles and clothing scientists said.

And it shows the world is still ‘far from’ achieving a reduction in single-use plastic, they warned.

The amount of microplastics found at the bottom of oceans has tripled in 20 years, researchers have found (stock image)

Microplastics at the bottom of the ocean remain unaletered 

Worryingly, the tiny pieces of plastic had remained unaltered since they were first deposited decades ago.

Once trapped in the seafloor they no longer degrade, either due to a lack of erosion, oxygen or light.

‘Once deposited, degradation is minimal, so plastics from the 1960s remain on the seabed, leaving the signature of human pollution there,’ the scientists said.

The team analysed five sediment cores that were extracted in the Balearic Sea – which lies to the east of Spain and south of France – in November 2019.

Each core was 14.5 inches (37cm) long and allowed the researchers to see how many microplastics were on the sea floor from 1965 – when plastics started to be mass-produced – onwards.

Their results, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, revealed that since the turn of the Millennium the amount of particles from broken-down plastic on the seafloor has tripled.

The team of researchers include those from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) in Spain and the Department of the Built Environment of Aalborg University (AAU-BUILD) in Denmark.

They said the amount of microplastics found embedded in the sea floor mimics global plastic production from 1965 to 2016.

Researcher Laura Simon-Sánchez said: ‘Specifically, the results show that, since 2000, the amount of plastic particles deposited on the seafloor has tripled and that, far from decreasing, the accumulation has not stopped growing mimicking the production and global use of these materials.’

Worryingly, the tiny pieces of plastic had remained unaltered since they were first deposited decades ago

Worryingly, the tiny pieces of plastic had remained unaltered since they were first deposited decades ago

Worryingly, the tiny pieces of plastic had remained unaltered since they were first deposited decades ago.

Once trapped in the seafloor they no longer degrade, either due to a lack of erosion, oxygen or light.

‘Once deposited, degradation is minimal, so plastics from the 1960s remain on the seabed, leaving the signature of human pollution there,’ the scientists said.

Michael Grelaud, who was also part of the research team, added: ‘This has allowed us to see how, since the 1980s, but especially in the past two decades, the accumulation of polyethylene and polypropylene particles from packaging, bottles and food films has increased, as well as polyester from synthetic fibres in clothing fabrics.’

They found polypropylene – mostly used for packaging – was the most abundant.

Combined, the three different types of particles reached a maximum weight of 1.5 milligrams per kg – which was found in the upper part of the sediment core, representing the most recent years.

The environmental impacts of microplastics have yet to be fully understood, although it has been well established that the tiny pieces of plastic have been able to contaminate both food and water supplies.

Previous research has estimated up to 14 million tons of microplastics lie on the seafloor, with plastic pollution reaching the sea ice around Antarctica and even the world’s deepest waters of the Mariana Trench.

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WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS AND HOW DO THEY GET INTO OUR WATERWAYS?

Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than five millimetres (0.2 inches).

They have hit the headlines over recent years, as improper disposal has resulted in tonnes of waste making its way into the ocean.

Each year, tonnes of plastic waste fails to get recycled and dealt with correctly, which can mean they end up in marine ecosystems. 

Although it’s unclear exactly how they end up in the water, microplastics may enter through simple everyday wear and tear of clothing and carpets.

Tumble dryers may also be a source, particularly if they have a vent to the open air. 

Plastics don’t break down for thousands of years and it is estimated that there are already millions of items of plastic waste in the oceans. This number is expected to rise. 

Studies have also revealed 700,000 plastic fibres could be released into the atmosphere with every washing machine cycle.

Current water systems are unable to effectively filter out all microplastic contamination, due to the varying size of particles.  

The amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans will outweigh fish by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to further recycle, a report released in 2016 revealed.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s tap water is contaminated with plastic, research published in September 2017 revealed.

The US has the highest contamination rate at 93 per cent, followed by Lebanon and India, experts from the University of Minnesota found.

France, Germany and the UK have the lowest levels, however, they still come in at 72 per cent.

Overall, 83 per cent of water samples from dozens of nations around the world contain microplastics.

Scientists warn microplastics are so small they could penetrate organs. 

Bottled water may not be a safer alternative, as scientists have found contaminated samples.

Creatures of all shapes and sizes have been found to have consumed the plastics, whether directly or indirectly.

Previous research has also revealed microplastics absorb toxic chemicals, which are then released in the gut of animals.

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