Plastic: invented in the beginning of the 20th century, revolutionised in the 1960s, now the cause of a global disaster. Composed of chains of small, repeating units, the resulting material is so durable that if the Knights of St John had celebrated their win in the Great Siege with a refreshing swig of water from a plastic bottle, the thing would likely still be floating around. Not as a whole bottle, but as microplastics.
Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic, stubborn remnants from bigger items usually improperly disposed of. While they may not show up on your Facebook feed as the ones responsible for heartbreaking sea turtle videos, their damage is just as significant.
Microplastics travel through food-chains, so that fish you’ve been eating could contain toxic, carcinogenic materials that are poisoning you. Now think about the impact this is having on the environment as a whole. Mind-blowing!
The more we know about microplastics, the easier it will be for us to manage them. A team of academics from the University of Malta, led by Prof. Alan Deidun and Dr Adam Gauci, kicked off the local effort by characterising fragments of microplastics found on Malta’s beaches. They sampled four beaches eight times for large microplastics (LMPs), using visual observation through microscopic analyses and a cutting-edge software developed within the current study which makes use of an algorithm that processed all the data collected.
The beaches with the highest number of LMPs were Riviera Bay and Golden Bay, both of which face the direction of the prevailing wind in the Maltese islands, the northwest. This might suggest that most microplastics on our beaches are deposited there through wave action.
While one cannot discount the contribution made by people innocently ‘forgetting’ their granita cups and other plastic waste in the sand, it is interesting to note that 67 per cent of the microplastics studied seem to be pre-production pellets. These pellets are occasionally lost from industrial facilities, and given their small size, they are highly mobile.
This study is one that aims to further understand the environmentalist nightmare that are microplastics. But research alone cannot dig us out of this problem. We must all own up our responsibility in protecting the environment from microplastics. For all you know, they just might end up on your plate.
This article was first published in the University of Malta’s research magazine Think (issue 25). For the full article, visit https://www.um.edu.mt/think/the-p-factor .