Bad news, everyone!
December 4, 2019 9:53 PM   Subscribe

New study suggests previous estimates of ocean microplastics were off by 5 to 7 orders of magnitude:
We successfully developed and tested a new method for collecting and counting the smallest microplastic pieces in seawater and ingested inside the guts of salps, a planktonic species at the base of food webs and key to transport of carbon and particles from the sea surface to the deep sea. We determined that the true abundance of these tiniest microplastics far outnumber previously reported counts, and that every salp we examined had ingested plastic.

Brandon, J.A., Freibott, A. and Sala, L.M. (2019), Patterns of suspended and salp‐ingested microplastic debris in the North Pacific investigated with epifluorescence microscopy. Limnol Oceanogr. doi:10.1002/lol2.10127

Media coverage:
  • There's Literally a Million Times More Microplastic in Our Oceans Than We Realized (George Dvorsky, Gizmodo):
    "If you pulled 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of water out of the ocean, how many small bits of plastic would you expect to find? Ten pieces? One hundred pieces? How about 8.3 million pieces of what researchers call 'mini-microplastic.' Such is the finding of an alarming new study."
  • There are a million times more microplastics in the ocean than we thought (Adele Peters, Fast Company):
    Though projects like the Ocean Cleanup nonprofit attempts to collect larger pieces of plastic from the ocean—before those pieces of trash can break down—there isn’t yet a way to clean up the smallest particles. Until there is, the best answer is to prevent even more plastic garbage from entering the ocean in the first place. 'I think investing at the prevention level right now is the best bang for your buck, and then figuring out the next wave of the technology we’re going to use to take these tiny things out of the ocean,' she says.
posted by Not A Thing (42 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Here is an amazing previous post about salps.
posted by Not A Thing at 9:59 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Well, fuck.
posted by vrakatar at 10:33 PM on December 4, 2019 [21 favorites]


So either we will be responsible for destroying the most important food web on Earth or some rapid plastic eating bacteria will evolve and decimate modern society as it moves from the oceans to land.

Favorite sentence, "When in doubt, particles were not counted as plastic, so our estimates are conservative and most likely underestimate total mini‐microplastic abundance."

Awesome.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 10:35 PM on December 4, 2019 [26 favorites]


It seems we have underestimated the mechanical action of the ocean in the breakdown of plastic. We still need to get our plastic waste under control, but this could be good news for creatures higher up the food chain.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:26 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I bought 2 Guppy Friend bags (Patagonia, I've read, sells them at cost) to wash my synthetic clothes in. There are washing machine filters that filter microplastics (dunno if they catch mini-microplastics).

Of course, a more effective solution could be to stop making and buying so many synthetic clothes. Patagonia makes an effort to reduce its carbon footprint with organic and recycled textiles, and for synthetic outdoor sports clothes, it at least acknowledges the problem and is frank about recycled vs virgin nylon.

But non-technical synthetic clothes hit the right price point for many people who don't have a lot of disposable income. I've been thinking of what to write to my political reps on this microplastics issue, but I don't know enough yet to know what to push for. Mandatory filters on new washing machines is just a stopgap. Is there a way to reduce the number of virgin synthetic clothes being produced? (Besides reducing demand, which ain't gonna happen unless more of us keep talking to unaware people about this issue.)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:37 PM on December 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Horrifying but surprising. I've felt for a long time now that we shouldn't allow the manufacture of anything where there is not a real recycle path in place for all of it - design should start with this by law.

Am not aware of any institution planning on this but throwing anything away has to be shown up for the oxymoron it is. As things IMO reach a critical point there's a need for ever more activism as the pollies and corps are just too slow.
posted by unearthed at 12:45 AM on December 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


Is there a way to reduce the number of virgin synthetic clothes being produced?

You mean in the abstract? Like say, bans or quotas?
posted by PMdixon at 4:12 AM on December 5, 2019


Best title, best tags.
posted by Don Pepino at 4:14 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Cybercoitus interruptus, how do you remove the microfiber from the bag after use? And then where does it go? I'm interested in these but am having trouble imagining how they work in practice.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:20 AM on December 5, 2019


It collects as a little ball of fiber, and you roll it up in a ball and throw it away with the rest of your landfill trash.
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:22 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


But .. doesnt landfill trash eventually end up partially in the ocean? Unless bits of it are specifically recycled ?

I am confused as to why collecting microplastics in a ball prevents them entering the foodchain via the sea?
posted by Faintdreams at 5:09 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Ideally, stuff that goes to the landfill stays there, with the eventually-full landfill being capped with dirt to keep things contained for the long term. (What percentage of the world's trash is actually handled that way is a different story, with lots being burned, thrown in rivers and oceans, or left in the open.) But assuming you are in a place with a functioning trash collection system, there is a slight benefit to capturing the waste from your synthetic clothes and sending that to the landfill rather than down the drain (and out to sea).
posted by Dip Flash at 5:16 AM on December 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


Thanks everyone for clarifying. I was imagining microfibers to be imperceptible to the human eye, so I didn't understand there would be enough to roll into a ball.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:18 AM on December 5, 2019


It seems we have underestimated the mechanical action of the ocean in the breakdown of plastic. We still need to get our plastic waste under control, but this could be good news for creatures higher up the food chain.

I have some bad news for you. Guess what creatures higher up in the food web eat? They in fact eat things like salps or things that eat them. No, more plastic in smaller pieces is not in any way good news for anything.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:21 AM on December 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


So either we will be responsible for destroying the most important food web on Earth or some rapid plastic eating bacteria will evolve and decimate modern society as it moves from the oceans to land.

Probably that. I mean, I've always had this wonderment in my brain where it's like, why in teh fuq aren't there petroleum-eating bacteria, and why aren't they gobbling up oil wells now that we've tapped them. Evolution is pretty quick about stuff like that usually.

Did I just jinx earth to venus status omfg
posted by saysthis at 5:23 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


So either we will be responsible for destroying the most important food web on Earth or some rapid plastic eating bacteria will evolve and decimate modern society as it moves from the oceans to land.

It's not that simple and it may actually help us fix the problem. Some bacteria are evolving to use plastic as a primary carbon source. For instance, Ideonella sakaiensis can metabolize PET. They have an enzyme (PETase) that can hydrolyze the PET polymer back to its constituent precursors which can then be purified and reused to make virgin plastic. With some research to enhance the efficiency of the enzyme on harder plastics, this can probably be commercialized and we can close the plastic loop forever, just like we closed aluminium cans.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 5:32 AM on December 5, 2019 [8 favorites]


Probably that. I mean, I've always had this wonderment in my brain where it's like, why in teh fuq aren't there petroleum-eating bacteria, and why aren't they gobbling up oil wells now that we've tapped them. Evolution is pretty quick about stuff like that usually.

There are petroleum eating bacteria, including in the Gulf of Mexico where small amounts of oil naturally seep from shallow formations. Crude oil is a lot more reactive than plastics though.
posted by atrazine at 5:34 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Was sorta hoping we'd get to the Ringworld stage *before* the plastic-eating bacteria destroyed everything, but I guess it's better than the plastic killing everything.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:54 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


There are petroleum eating bacteria, they just take a while to break it down. My money is on food web near-collapse. Evolution is real quick in geological time, which is not the scale we tend to live on. We could see something in our lifetimes but that would be the good news, until all the plastic gaskets, boards, and sundry other things that underpins the material culture we rely on start to crumble. The PETase utilizing bacteria are a start but, as I understand it, PET is a relatively easy polymer to breakdown. Given the diversity of polymers that we use and the pervasiveness that micro-plastics (and mini-micro-plastics) already have in the environment simply closing the loop on PET is inadequate. Even if further developments allow for more plastics to be more easily reused there is still to much crap in the system. Like trying to go carbon-neutral, it is a goal I support, it just does not go far enough.

We already see the difficulty in recycling much of what gets tossed in recycling bins. Much of it just gets tossed in landfill because the capacity to recycle and the price of recycling versus virgin manufacture from petroleum favors new nurdles. And with the loss of nurdles into the environment before they are even used being a noticeable contribution to the environmental plastic we really need to stop using this stuff. Of course I know that I would be unable to function in the modern world without plastic polymers. Some of my favorite tools and toys rely on plastics. We use plastic, often in forms that are not recyclable for food packaging, treating paper to make glossy magazines, gym clothes, and dozens of other non-obvious uses that would never be tossed in a recycling system that would actually treat the core issue. Petroleum based polymers need to be phased out.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 5:56 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the problem with plastic is also the reason we love it so much: the molecules are incredibly tough and stable. That makes it great for all kinds of purposes. It also makes it really really hard for microbes to do anything with.

I would bank on the fungi adapting to plastic before the bacteria or archaea. Fungi are the only ones who can decompose many of the toughest molecules in plant matter. The other microbes wait for the fungi to move in and start breaking stuff apart into smaller molecules, then everyone else can finish it off.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:59 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately pointing to increased adoption of natural fibers almost certainly isn't the answer either, or at least not a simple and obvious one; there aren't enough sheep/cotton fields/hemp fields etc to satisfy global demand and to swing production to that side serves to ramp up all the stuff that's bad about intensive farming.

My source at this point is admittedly a 20 year old graduate school textbook on polymer engineering and a whole lot of handwaving...
posted by hearthpig at 6:01 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


It was my understanding that most of the plastic in the oceans is not from synthetic clothing, but debris from the fishing industry, damaged and/ lost nets, etc. Oddly I haven't heard much of a push to return to using non synthetic options .
posted by peppermind at 6:07 AM on December 5, 2019 [8 favorites]


I live alongside Lake Ontario and I promise you it is not just the oceans.

My family's committed to eliminating single-use plastic bags including produce, lunches, etc., and it is an interesting transition. The other day my son and I forgot our bag so we bought as much fruit as we could carry to the car in our hands. The cashier tried to bag it before she weighed it, and then another cashier ran up to bag it after it was weighed, while I was paying, and finally a fellow customer threw us an extra plastic bag while we were picking the fruit up (and admittedly chatting with the cashier.) I am hopeful that in another year or two it will mostly be normal.

...it is exhausting sometimes though and right now some of our solutions are kind of frustrating. For example, I bought lunch containers in the summer that had a metal base and a plastic lid, in the hopes that they wouldn't get cracked like some of our other ones have. The seals failed pretty quickly and at this point, 2/3 of them are unusable due to the lid. If anyone is reading this the very best containers seem to be the old-school Thermos brand ones, but unfortunately I haven't found one that fits like, bread. Great for rice and lentils or whatever. Actually I'm going to go to an Ask right now.

I didn't know about the Guppy Friend bags, thanks. My work uniform shirt is performance fabric and we also own a lot of it.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:29 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


so as an older boomer friend put it to me recently when discussing how very many of her contemporaries were dying "ahead of schedule" of various cancers, that party scene from The Graduate just keeps carrying more and more weight ...





plastics
posted by philip-random at 7:01 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Evolution is pretty quick about stuff like that usually.
The last time the biosphere saw new classes of strong polymers appear, it may have taken tens of millions of years for the ability to digest them to evolve. Debatable, but this may be the reason we have so much fossil carbon locked out of the biosphere in the first place.

If we want to get microplastics out of the ocean, I fear we'll have to engineer something that eats them ourselves. But if you're the sort of person who worries about the Precautionary Principle with respect to climate change geoengineering proposals, which could mostly be quickly stopped or reversed if unintended consequences are encountered, you should be utterly terrified at the idea of proposals to release entirely-new microorganisms into the oceans. Creating something which can spread through a sextillion tons of water to devour a hundred million tons of plastic may be impossible, but creating something that can do so and can also be easily turned off is almost certainly impossible.
we shouldn't allow the manufacture of anything where there is not a real recycle path in place for all of it
What's your definition of "we"? I'm in the USA, the #12 ocean plastic polluter on that chart, but we only account for a little over 1% of the total. Malaysia's probably wealthy enough for a strong environmentalist activism push to make a big difference, and China's been making some progress with air pollution lately so I'd guess asking for ocean pollution reduction too isn't unreasonable? But this is a global problem, and plastics manufacture is almost the archetypal example of global outsourcing. Anything less than a global solution will simply offload manufacture from countries that care more about the environment to countries that care less.
posted by roystgnr at 7:19 AM on December 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


An important qualifier here is probably that a million times more microplastic particles doesn't mean a million times more plastic in total. Indeed, the authors' discussion of Fig. 3 suggests that all of these mini-microplastic particles put together have less surface area than the larger microplastics put together:
Mini‐microplastics in this study were five orders of magnitude more abundant than the > 333 μm microplastics from Goldstein et al. (2013). However, when concentration was multiplied by surface area (log μm2 of plastic m−3 water), we found that the > 333 μm microplastics had significantly higher areal concentrations than the < 333 μm mini‐microplastics (Fig. 3, p < 0.0001, Kruskal–Wallis).
Presumably this would be even more the case for mass, given the whole square-cube thing.

Of course, the relevant metric depends on the effect you're concerned about. The more tiny particles there are floating around, the more they're going to get ingested by salps, incorporated into the food web, etc.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:55 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


May I introduce you to Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore? Mr. TW hangs out where the Jones Falls River empties into the harbor and captures trash BEFORE it reaches the ocean. A way more effective (and cost effective) solution to ocean plastics than the ambitious and problem-ridden Ocean Cleanup project.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:06 AM on December 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


And as a response to peppermind, my understanding from ocean conservation activists in Hawai‘i is that fishing debris is a bigger problem when it comes to wildlife entanglement.

In terms of sea creatures ingesting plastic, consumer trash is the problem that they were most focused on. Albatrosses are inadvertently feeding their chicks plastic bottle caps and disposable cigarette lighters (content note: photos of dead birds).
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:10 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Somewhat related - Fresh Air did a recent show with Adam Minter promoting his new book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. In the interview he covered many aspects of waste: what really happens to recycling, what happens to thrift store donations, mentality behind over-consumption, etc.

The takeaway is basically that REDUCE is the most important part of reduce/reuse/recycle. Every year you delay buying new clothes, appliances, etc. takes pressure off the system.
posted by freecellwizard at 9:05 AM on December 5, 2019 [6 favorites]


Does consuming the microplastics kill the salps outright? As in, get stuck inside of them and they starve to death shortly after? Or is more of a long term problem where the plastic passes through them, but of course they don't get nutrition from that and so they, over time, get malnourished and die? Or -- a third option -- are they relatively unharmed by the consumption, but the plastics harm the organisms that prey on them?

This is Not Good, but if that volume of plastic is in the ocean right now and we haven't had ecological collapse such as the bottom of the food chain dying off already... what's the timeline? a certain particles-per-cubic meter level is hit at a certain depth and we have a dead spot?

What a complicated problem with such unfortunate solutions. Humans are truly bad at long term risk recognition and mitigation on the individual level, and polities are still worse than individuals.

Once again, it's a topic where individual choices matter (not using plastic bags, washing one's clothing inside a bag that collects the microplastics), but with commercial fishing being the most prominent offender, this will require government action to solve. It's not like (for example) East Asia would stop eating fish as a staple protein until prices become unaffordable or populations of fish become so small that they are functionally un-harvestable (or outright go extinct). That's the biggest bummer about all of this, imo. No one will pay attention, and if they do, most people will figure "well if it's a bad enough problem, someone in power would fix it, ergo, it's not a problem."
posted by wires at 9:11 AM on December 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


One documented likely effect of salps ingesting microplastics is an impairment of the carbon cycle (less carbon being sent to the sea floor, and thus more of it remaining in the water column to further acidify the oceans).

I don't think it's as simple as a given concentration of microplastics triggering a mass dieoff, although I suppose there must be some point at which that would happen.
posted by Not A Thing at 9:30 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


with commercial fishing being the most prominent offender

Is there a source for that? This 2016 review, at least, states that:
Land-based sources of plastic debris contribute 80% of the plastic debris in the marine environment, with densely populated or industrialised areas being the major sources due to littering, plastic bag usage and solid waste disposal, for example.
The review cites a paper from 2002 for this number, though, so not sure that's really the last word. But more recent studies seem to be consistent with marine microplastics coming primarily from land-based sources.
posted by Not A Thing at 10:18 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


I see commerical fishing blamed a lot in climate/environmental denier circles but have never seen it substantiated.
posted by agregoli at 10:21 AM on December 5, 2019


The takeaway is basically that REDUCE is the most important part of reduce/reuse/recycle. Every year you delay buying new clothes, appliances, etc. takes pressure off the system.


I was under the impression that corporations were the main perpetrators of this crisis. Most people can't put off most costs anyway, and the ability to do so is dwindling as consumer purchasing power seems to be diminishing and is poised to take a further dive in the near term. By that I mean, most people can't purchase the higher quality products that last longer and contain fewer microplastics. They need clothes/appliances/etc today. The toaster is cheap and what can be afforded. When it breaks, that'll be the crisis of that day.

My takeaway was we really need to have systems for holding corporations at least civilly liable for any damages caused by their practices. I yearn for a world where we can analyze microplastics, trace them to the retailer, and bill them fully until the problem is fixed. Problem never fixed? Never stop billing. Problem getting worse? Nationalize or dissolve whatever entity is creating a global crisis and then decide from an ownership viewpoint if the company should continue to exist.

That and pillories. I'm really turning into a proponent of pillories for billionaires. I propose we call them billories and make them from recycled microplastics.
posted by avalonian at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2019 [11 favorites]


I definitely am not blaming individuals over corporations. Most people live day-to-day and don't have the option of buying the perfect long-lasting good to minimize waste. There's also 24/7 intense pressure to consume, and in some segments long-lasting products don't even exist. A lot has to happen to get to a better place:

* companies need to be made to internalize all costs related to disposal of products, carbon production, etc.
* companies in more-developed nations should not be allowed to outsource labor and production unless the target countries have equivalently strong labor and environmental laws.
* ban single-use plastics. Plastics are meant for things that last decades or longer.
* figure out how to convert to an economy that does not demand material growth to stay afloat. That is, incentivize Apple to make iPhones that have an openable battery cover and that I can use for 10 years at least; clothes that can survive large numbers of uses, etc.
* related to that one, rein in the power of advertising so that people are free to buy only what they need and then not constantly buy a bunch of new stuff.
* get people to value thrift again. Hell, when I was a kid my grandma RINSED OFF ALUMINUM FOIL, folded it, and put it back in the drawer.

Capitalist/market culture drives consumerism drives capitalism. You have to buy because the economy collapses if you don't. You have to have more kids because the population shrinks if you don't, and we need more consumers. Elephant, meet room.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:49 AM on December 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


avalonian - if all companies had to be established\ or re-stablished as B Corps rather than limited liability only that would start making a more rapid difference.

"but if that volume of plastic is in the ocean right now" The thing is we don't know the volume, just that it is much more than we think, and it is being constantly grounds down and down into smaller fractions to the point where it is very hard to measure.

I don't know much about plastics but I do know with urban runoff sediment that the harder and long you look the more you find, especially below the sub 40micron level.
posted by unearthed at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


Did you know that humans are 60% water plastic?
posted by freecellwizard at 12:32 PM on December 5, 2019


There's Literally a Million Times More Microplastic in Our Oceans Than We Realized

Kind of misleading clickbait. Surely when you cut your pie into 8 pieces instead of 4, you don't say you have twice as much pie. Unless you are Yogi Berra.
posted by JackFlash at 12:58 PM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


But in this instance, each particle split means that many more particles can be ingested. So it is a lot worse than your analogy.
posted by agregoli at 1:05 PM on December 5, 2019


I think this is somewhere between the pie analogy and the Sorcerer's Apprentice. After all, if the total mass of ocean plastic were simply present as a giant pile of plastic ingots sitting on the ocean floor, it would be of very little concern (until those ingots started breaking down, anyway). So mass isn't really the source of concern here. Finer particles spread more easily, both among and within organisms -- nanoplastics have been found crossing the blood-brain barrier in fish. OTOH, "a million times more plastic" is likely to mislead many readers as to what is actually being discussed.

On reflection, if I were posting this again I would take more care to clarify that the metric here is number rather than volume or mass, but I don't think that distinction makes the actual news here much less disturbing.
posted by Not A Thing at 1:27 PM on December 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is just anecdote, but I was on a dive job once out of Bellingham, Washington, to retrieve old fishing nets from Puget Sound. We dove in a few spots, and retrieved a few nets, but the overall impression I got was that they were everywhere.
posted by atchafalaya at 2:12 PM on December 5, 2019


PMDixon: You mean in the abstract? Like say, bans or quotas? [responding to my question "Is there a way to reduce the number of virgin synthetic clothes being produced?"]

Sure. I know a lot less than many Mefites about how governments and businesses work, so I just threw the question out there because I don't know what feasible thing to push my elected reps on that would be effective on this microplastics issue.

With bans or quotas, there's the problem of virgin synthetic clothes being a more affordable price point for many, so...axe government subsidies to fossil fuel industries (haha in my dreams), and subsidize Reduce and Reuse businesses instead?

Two more links to products I've been happy with that have replaced some of my plastic habits:
EcoBags (I'm using them for grocery produce)
Stasher Silicon Bags (I've used the Sandwich size for my small liquids for flights. Also, they are sous-vide-able.)

(Again, the affordability issue -- can governments subsidize consumer purchases from companies that are offering solutions to reducing plastics demand? or something. Many people concerned about pollution just can't afford to buy these things when they're already strapped for food or rent money, and I feel shitty for saying "You could buy these!")
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:13 PM on December 7, 2019


« Older If it doesn't bounce, it's a bad fishball   |   Pachelbel's Train Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments