Microplastics: an Important Piece of the Ocean Pollution Puzzle
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Youth Ambassador Liam Pope-Lau interviews Dr. Anna Posacka to learn more about microplastic pollution
Youth Ambassador, 11-year-old Liam Pope-Lau, interviews Ocean Diagnostics' Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Anna Posacka, in honour of Women in Science Day!
In their conversation, Dr. Posacka discusses how she got started in microplastic research, the potential threats microplastics pose to our health and ecosystems, and how microplastics are a piece of a larger puzzle in terms of ocean threats. She notes studying and reducing microplastic pollution can have simultaneous positive impacts on other ocean threats. Lastly, she shares inspiring suggestions to reduce our plastic use.
Scroll down for the interview highlights or dive into our Q&A below!
Liam starts the interview by asking Dr. Posacka how she got started in microplastics research and what her work entails.
As an ocean scientist, Dr. Posacka spent years studying ocean chemistry and biology. During her ocean research, she came across a pollutant of growing concern: microplastics.
Microplastics are plastic pieces 5mm in size or smaller and they come from different synthetic materials, which makes researching their impacts difficult. She quickly discovered that microplastics are everywhere and their properties are highly complex, but she was curious to learn more and eager to help piece the puzzle together.
"By preventing plastic pollution in the first place, we can solve a lot of microplastic pollution,” Dr. Posacka.
"When I started working on microplastics, I realized they are part of a larger problem we have: plastic pollution. Many microplastics come from big plastics. By preventing plastic pollution in the first place, we can solve a lot of microplastic pollution,” says Dr. Posacka.
Dr. Posacka’s research addressed questions like Where do microplastics come from? How do they get into our environment? Which animals do they affect? How best can we identify their sources? Her work includes studies on the role of our clothes in the global microplastic problem and how microplastics move through the Beluga whale food web in the Arctic ocean.
Ocean Diagnostics is thrilled to have her expertise to advance lab techniques to efficiently analyze microplastics and help researchers and decision-makers to trace them back to their sources.
Skip to this question:
Knowing microplastics are everywhere, leads Liam to ask: “How do microplastics affect what we all have in common, like food, the economy, wildlife and health?”
Dr. Posacka explains, “scientists are still working to learn more about the impacts of microplastics on our ecosystem, health and economy, but they are several things that we already know. We know they get ingested [by wildlife], we know we are exposed, and we know, like larger plastics, microplastics are made from polymers.”
Some scientists estimate certain polymers can take up to 1,000 years to break down, explains Dr. Posacka.
Dr. Posacka highlights that the qualities of plastic polymers make them a concern for our environment. For example, plastic polymers:
Can last in the environment for a very long time:
When plastics enter the environment, they remain there for a significant amount of time. Plastics’ durability makes them an attractive product but can cause trouble in our environment. Some scientists estimate certain polymers can take up to 1,000 years to break down. If each generation is around 25 years, plastics in the environment now will be there for 40 more generations; that would be about the same time as your kids having kids 40 times over!
Can have harmful chemicals added to them:
You might be wearing plastics with certain chemical additives right now, without even knowing. Plastics can contain different chemicals, depending on their use. For example, textiles tend to be built with plastic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, and treated with chemicals, like those that make them fire-resistant or waterproof. When released into the environment, these chemical additives can leach off the plastics and into the environment or organism that ingests them.
Pose a physical hazard to some species:
Imagine you are a tiny zooplankton, enjoying a drift about the sea, and you come across a microplastic. Zooplankton can be about the size of cracked pepper. From the perspective of a tiny zooplankton, some microplastics would be rather large! They can also look like food. Dr. Posacka explains, “species at the bottom of the food web [like zooplankton], may not discriminate between a juicy phytoplankton or a plastic fiber. Microplastics do not have nutritional value and may negatively affect the nutrients these species get.” This is an issue because animals at the bottom of food webs are key diet items for other ocean species. If the bottom of the food web is affected, there may be a ripple effect impacting top predators.
You might remember one famous zooplankton, “Plankton,” from SpongeBob SquarePants. Plankton is a copepod, one of the most common classes of zooplankton in our seas. “Plankton” and other zooplankton are important animals in our oceans, and due to their size, microplastics may indeed pose a physical threat.
There are still many questions. Dr. Posacka explains, “we are putting huge quantities of plastics into the ocean, and we can’t really predict what their impact will be.”
Skip to this question:
Liam believes that technology may play an important role in helping address the issues of plastics pollution. He recalls joining a beach clean-up and noticing that microplastics were extremely hard to take out of the environment by hand. He asks Dr. Posacka “What role does technology play to help solve these problems?”
"Technology plays a huge role. Microplastics come from many sources and they can change dynamically in the environment,” answers Dr. Posacka. We need technologies to simplify these complexities and scale research up to global levels. Technology can help