The Rising Tide of Microplastic Pollution on Land and Sea

70,000 particles consumed each year by typical American.

By John Starmer and J. Sam Weiss

The typical American generates two to eight times more garbage than our counterparts around the world.

Not surprisingly, we also use and then dispose of more plastic than any other nation, an estimated 42 million metric tons last year, amounting to an average of 285 pounds (130 kg) of waste for every single man, woman and child.

A 2021 report submitted to the federal government states that the advent of cheap, versatile plastics has created “a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look.”

At best 10% of US plastic waste gets recycled. Another 13% gets burned, sometimes to generate electricity. Most of the remaining plastic is buried in landfills, but each year at least 1 billion pounds of plastic finds its way into our oceans.
As The Guardian reports, such plastics “ends up entangling and choking marine life, harming ecosystems, and bringing harmful pollution up through the food chain.”

Today, most plastics’ are petroleum based. To alter the color, to increase durability, and/or to reduce flammability, modern plastics often contain toxins, such as the heavy metals lead, cadmium, and mercury.

What happens to plastics that escape our disposal and recycling systems? After sufficient exposure to the wind, rain, and direct sunlight, a single half-liter (16.9 fl. oz. ) plastic water bottle can break down into more than 300,000 microplastic fragments. These pieces are so small that they can be absorbed inside the organs of whales, other mammals, fish, and even trees and plants.

When smaller than 0.5 mm– about the size of a piece of short-grain rice– they are considered to be microplastics. For wildlife, microplastics can be mistaken for food. Once consumed, these tiny particles can block the digestive tract and even find their way into tissues and organs.

Plastic waste washed up on the beach gets pounded by waves into smaller and smaller pieces. Still other bits of plastic get nibbled into smaller pieces by curious fish and turtles.

Microplastics can also entangle plankton and prevent them from feeding or escaping predators, which then end up swallowing not only a bit of food but also the plastic.

These tiny plastic fragments are small enough to pass through cell walls and get into individual cells.
Even when these microplastics get smaller and smaller, much like a rock being crushed by surf into sand, they generally remain chemically unchanged. So plastics containing toxins remain dangerous for many years.

Another common additive is the synthetic chemical BPA, one of a larger group of chemicals called phthalates, which stabilizes plastic and makes it mpact resistant. Unfortunately, BPAs, once consumed by humans, acts in ways similar to the hormone Estrogen.
Unlike natural Estrogens, which are boken down in minutes or hours, artificial estrogen-like compounds can remain in the body for days, months or even years.

Synthetically-created Estrogens have been linked to both breast and prostate cancer. They also can disrupt the physiology of both fishes and plants.

Today, microplastics are ubiquitous. They have been found as contaminants in sugar, salt, alcohol, and can even leach out of teabags!

Dust-sized microplastics much smaller than the width of a human hair (also called nanoplastics) have been discovered inside fish and plant tissues, within human lungs, blood and livers and also on the inner and outer layers of placental tissues.


Think Globally, Act Locally Getting involved on Maui

If you haven’t already helped recover plastics along beaches and roadways to recycle or properly dispose of, you likely have friends that have. While most of these cleanups target larger plastic pieces, some groups are coming up with methods to remove microplastics as well.

Other efforts include adding permanent netting to catch floating plastics washing down rivers, and a number of plastic skimming mechanisms and filtering robots are being experimented with to recover plastics from harbors and even the open ocean.
However, only about one percent of the microplastic pollution floats at the surface.

The remaining 99% is much more difficult to collect.

While pulling plastic pollution out of the environment helps, you as an individual have the ability to make a huge difference in reducing plastic pollution at the source. The eco-mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” absolutely applies to plastics.

Getting away from a single-use mindset and preventing the improper disposal of plastics are the first steps. Consider choosing reusable, non-plastic alternatives when available. Reuse plastics when you can. Finally, make sure all used plastic products are recycled or properly disposed of.

One victory was In 2015, when the US banned the manufacture and distribution of microplastic beads in personal care products such as skin exfoliants and toothpaste.

In March 2022, just a few months ago, Maui County ban on plastic takeout and leftover food containers went into effect. Locally, plastic straws, single-use plastic utensils as well as styrofoam coolers are now outlawed.


What are Plastics

Plastic originally referred to anything “pliable and easily shaped.” It now means commonly a category of materials called polymers. The word polymer means “of many parts,” and polymers are made of long chains of molecules. Polymers abound in nature. For example, cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a common natural polymer.

Just after WWII, humans figured out how to manufacture synthetic polymers, often using carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. Synthetic polymers, made up of long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units, are what make todays plastics so strong, lightweight, and flexible.

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory.

The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes.


Progress On Plastics (partial list)

Jan. 2011: Kauai bans retailers from giving out plastic bags; requires use of recyclable paper or reusable bags.

Jan. 2014: Hawai’i County bans retailer use of single use plastic bags (with a few exceptions.)

July 2015: Oahu bans businesses from providing plastic bags for checkout, amended to require minimum $0.15 charge for each paper/reusable compostable bags.

July 2019: Hawai’i County bans food vendors and users of county facilities from using polystyrene foam food containers, requires recyclable or compostable food service ware.

Jan. 2022: Oahu bans use and sale of polystyrene foam; requires plastic service ware and

Jan. 2022 Kauai restricted use and sale of polystyrene food containers.

March 2022: Maui County ban on plastic takeout and leftover food containers went into effect. Maui also previously outlawed banned plastic straws, single-use plastic utensils as well as Styrofoam coolers.


Getting Involved

Sharakstic’s Kaehu Beach Cleanup
For more than a decade, this wonderful non-profit has hosted monthly beach cleant ups.

Malama Maui Nui Community Cleanup
Organize your own cleanup with the support of Malama Maui Nui.

Surfrider Foundation Beach Cleanup
Join this community of everyday people who passionately protect our playground – the ocean, waves and beaches that provide us so much enjoyment. Rally public support for plastic container bans and other environmental legislation. Plastic Straws Suck campaign provides framework for passing local anti-plastic-straw laws.

Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund
Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund removes an estimated 15-20 tons per year. The Fund funded Hoʻōla One, a prototype machine designed to remove small pieces of plastic marine debris from beach sand.

Love the Sea
Maui-based nonprofit dedicated to “ghost net” extraction and removal of debris from hard-to-reach beaches in the Hawaiian Islands. Experienced watermen and women swim in and pack giant bags full of debris, which is then transferred by jet ski to small boats to be hauled, weighed and sorted for recycling or reuse.


More Resources

Marine Debris Tracker
A global citizen science project to learn where plastic debris is coming from.

Greenpeace’s “Plastics in Seafood”
Documented microplastics in bodies of over 170 species of marine creatures. Greenpeace also discovered numerous loopholes in microplastics phase-out measures that 30 major cosmetics and body care companies adopted.

Adventure Scientists
has amassed one of the largest and most diverse global microplastic pollution datasets to date. These data are being used by businesses, governments, and individuals to limit plastic waste.

John Starmer