Microplastics may be as harmful to marine life as larger marine debris, such as fishing nets and plastic bags, according to a report by the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), a UN advisory body.
The report is the first global-scale assessment to identify the sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the ocean.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has also released a report on the ocean economy, which recommends action on oceans in the post-2015 development agenda and the expected 2015 agreement on climate change.
27 April 2015: Microplastics may be as harmful to marine life as larger marine debris, such as fishing nets and plastic bags, according to a report by the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), a UN advisory body. The report is the first global-scale assessment to identify the sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the ocean.
Microplastics are small plastic particles that result from the fragmentation of larger plastic articles or are manufactured for domestic or industrial applications, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which serves as the Administrative Secretary of GESAMP. Microplastics are found in face wash and toothpaste and can accumulate in large ocean vortexes of plastics, which snare birds, fish and marine mammals.
The report, titled ‘Sources, Fates and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: A Global Assessment,’ finds that microplastics exist inside marine organisms, such as birds, fish, invertebrates and mammals and that ingesting microplastics affects the feeding, growth, movement and breeding success of these organisms. In addition, chemicals and pesticides added to the plastics during manufacturing processes can be ingested into the organism’s cells, organs and tissues or become concentrated in the surrounding ocean water. These microplastics and chemical toxins are also transferred through the food web, including to humans through fish consumption.
The report recommends: identifying the main sources and categories of plastics and microplastics entering the ocean; utilizing end-of-life plastic as a resource rather than a waste product; raising awareness of the impacts of plastics and microplastics in the marine environment; including nanosize particles in future assessments of plastics in the ocean; evaluating the potential of plastics and microplastics as a vector for organisms; and further developing knowledge on the chemical risk of ingested microplastics in future assessments.
The impacts of plastics and microplastics in the ocean have received increasing attention in recent months, with several European countries calling for bans on microplastics. Additionally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced her intention to address plastics at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in June 2015, with the aim of reducing waste from plastics and microplastics. The Race for Water Odyssey and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have also raised awareness on plastic pollution during events in April.
Threats to the ocean economy have also been highlighted by the report, ‘Reviving the Ocean Economy: The Case for Action–2015,’ by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Boston Consulting Group. The report estimates the ocean’s economic value at US$24 trillion, but stresses that the ocean’s natural asset base is in jeopardy as a result of overfishing and overexploitation, climate change impacts and the erosion of coastal and marine ecosystems. The report outlines eight steps the international community can take to restore ocean health and halt the decline of the ocean economy, including through addressing oceans in the post-2015 development agenda and ensuring that an agreement on climate change addresses ocean warming and acidification. Additional recommendations include: conserving and managing 30% of representative marine areas by 2030; rebuilding fish stocks to ecologically sustainable harvest levels; and building transparent accounting of the value of ocean assets to improve decision-making. [IMO Press Release] [Publication: Sources, Fates and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: A Global Assessment] [WWF Press Release] [Publication: Reviving the Ocean Economy: The Case for Action–2015] [IISD RS Story on European Call for Ban on Microplastics] [IISD Story on Race for Water Odyssey] [IISD RS Sources]