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Why Are Microplastics a Problem? Causes, Effects, A Guide

This month, my monthly statement turns to the ongoing issue of microplastics. Similar to my previous month’s statement on how long it takes glass to decompose. This is to address the question of why are microplastics a problem.

So in this statement article, I’m throwing my attention to this issue to help others understand why microplastics are a problem, how they develop, the effects of microplastics on organisms, and humans, and what we can do about it!

But first, here’s my usual quick overview answer, then we’ll start to look at the detail and research behind all this…

Why are microplastics a problem? Plastics leech into the water system or are discarded by humans, these then break down to microparticles. These particles are eaten by zooplankton, which in turn travels up the food chain, affecting internal organs of animals, and humans. Potentially leading to extensive health complications and even death.

Now that we’ve had the short quick answer, let’s take a look further into this because various harmful effects caused by microplastic exposure have been explored across different classes of biological organisation: from genetic to the population level.

This exploration of the problem has revealed a diverse set of information associated with how different organisms interact with microplastics – through what pathways do they get exposed …along with the biological consequences of that exposure!

Microplastics in the marine environment are ingested by the zooplankton and other small sea creatures. These creatures are then consumed by larger fish, these microplastics and the toxic compounds adsorbed on their surface then get transferred to their bodies …where they cause inflammation and other adverse reactions.

When such fish are consumed by humans, the toxic compounds reach their gut – from where they get transferred to various body organs, causing systemic toxicity or even organ failure.

So this is far more serious than one might first think. But, how did microplastics get into the zooplankton in the first place? That’s where we come in! So let’s explore that next.

What are Microplastics and How are They Formed

Studies report that about 90% of the plastics present in the pelagic marine environment are microplastics. They’re defined as pieces of plastic that are “less than 5mm in diameter” (Eriksen et al, 2013; Browne et al., 2010 and Thompson et al., 2004).

Microplastics emerge when the larger pieces of plastics undergo fragmentation due to the effects of ultraviolet radiation, along with wave and wind action.

Recent studies have revealed that the use of minuscule plastic abrasives (known as microbeads or nanobeads), particularly in cosmetics and personal care products, detergents, along with the shedding of synthetic fabrics while washing clothes, are some of the major points of entry of microplastics into the aquatic ecosystem (Eriksen et al., 2013).

Filtering microplastics!

You might think that these plastics are simply filtered out of the sewage and other water treatment systems we have available. After all, these are modern facilities, right?

Well, these plastics are actually difficult to remove while treating wastewater and may simply pass through mostly unchallenged.

Such microbeads and nanoparticle plastics, along with other microplastics produced through fragmentation, pose a serious threat to a wide variety of creatures in the aquatic food chain.

Credits: Dr. Andrea Sättler

How Microplastics Affect the Aquatic Ecosystem:

Microplastic debris has an immensely toxic impact on aquatic life. Marine animals commonly mistake microplastics as food, since they’re colourful – and look like actual pieces of food.

When creatures like zooplankton, lung worms, and various small aquatic wildlife consume microplastics, their stomach gets filled up to the point where they’re unable to digest this plastic, and yet unable to eat any actual food.

Effectively, the intake of microplastics causes zooplankton to starve, eventually causing death.

Unfortunately, the worst detail is yet to come. When lungworms and other small creatures ingest microplastic, the microplastic can then be transferred to the bodies of the animals that eat them. This takes place through a process known as trophic transfer; the process of energy transfer through the food chain.

“The intake of microplastics causes zooplankton

to starve, eventually causing death.”


Tiny animals like small fish and zooplankton occupy the bottom of the food chain, referring to the fact that they’re eaten by a number of other animals such as larger fish or seals.

When a larger animal consumes zooplankton, the microplastics that were ingested by the zooplankton then get transferred into the body of that larger animal. These microplastics then leach toxic chemicals into the body of that animal.

Through this process, the aquatic ecosystem and food web is affected in its entirety by nanobeads and microplastics.

Microplastics ingested by larger aquatic animals will generally be distributed throughout their body.

Surprisingly, research reveals that microplastics can be retained in the digestive tract for greater periods where they cause injury and abrasion to body tissue.

Microplastics can pass through the gut membrane and migrate to different parts of the body, such as the liver and kidneys, where they can cause significant damage. This gives you an idea of just how small microplastics are!

Smaller sea creatures which include marine and freshwater invertebrates might undergo a diverse range of effects from consuming microplastics.

These effects include the stunted growth of the organism, and failure to reproduce. These occur typically as a result of physical damage which includes inflammation, lacerations, hypersensitivity reactions along with a reduction in the animal’s feeding activity when microplastics are ingested by it – instead of actual food.

Photo Credits: Getty Images

Pollutants sticking to microplastics

A number of heavy metals and pollutants can absorb or stick to the surface of microplastics. As a result of which plastics can often behave like sponges in the environment, indirectly absorbing various chemicals and heavy metal particles onto their surfaces.

While these plastics have the ability to remove certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from surrounding water, the major concern that remains is what happens when these plastics containing adsorbed chemicals and pollutants are consumed by animals.

The ability of certain POPs to adhere to plastic surfaces is of particular concern especially due to the toxicity they cause …even at low doses.

These toxic, and as the name indicates, persistent chemicals are largely distributed in the aquatic environment and readily concentrate onto the surface of microplastics at approximately 1 million times greater concentration than they do in the surrounding water.

Researchers conclude that these pollutants can transfer from ingested microplastics to the internal tissues of the animal, where they may become concentrated within the body and transfer through the food web.

This is, of course, happening fairly gradually, but nonetheless it is escalating in the marine environment. But how does this affect you and me? Let’s go on to discuss that.

Microplastics effect on human health

There is no doubt that plastics in various forms have been immensely beneficial to human health and efficiency, through their use in therapeutic and diagnostic devices, right through to protecting and preserving our food items and beverages.

They have provided a great revolution in the healthcare industry by improving sterility through the use of disposable gloves and syringes, intravenous tubes and catheters. Hypoallergenic medical devices have also been a source of increased comfort.

Plastic packaging also helps prevent food and beverages from getting spoiled due to microbial contamination.

Despite all these great benefits, such widespread use of plastic indicates that we’re ingesting some portion of plastics in our diet.

Ongoing research – according to the NCBI, has revealed that continuous aggregation of toxins in regards to plastics poses a serious threat to both food safety as well as public health.

Regardless, the amount of plastics and similar chemicals that humans are exposed to in their diet – in comparison to other everyday activities has not been monitored.

“toxins in regards to plastics poses a serious threat

to both food safety as well as public health”

Microplastics and nanobeads have been found in a variety of seafood species such as various kinds of fish and shellfish. Research conducted on the commercial fish species of South Pacific revealed the prevalence of microplastics in about 25% of fish collected from Samoa, Tahiti Auckland and Easter Island.

Although these plastics are often found in the gut, which is removed before consumption,  they still pose a dietary risk through means of microplastic associated contaminants and toxins getting transferred to other body tissues.

To leave you with a further staggering piece of information that may hit closer to home, microplastics have also been found in table salt, tap water and even about 90% of bottled mineral water. On average, researchers found 325 microplastic particles per litre of bottled water.

So why am I highlighting this in my statement this month?

My conclusion

Of course, we need more intensive studies of the effects of microplastics. There’s always a need for more information and monitoring. But really, I’d like to see more by way of action than by way of talking.

Why do I say this? Well, even judging by the evidence so far, it’s clear that something is happening, for me, that’s enough to go on and that should spark a change in the way we view, use and dispose of plastics altogether.

I know I’m not alone, and I’d like to take more action through my foundation. If you want to join my causes taking action for a better world in the future, then head over to my donation page and put your hat in the ring.

So here’s where my call to action comes into it…

Our own actions will certainly help dictate how this plays out. So let’s begin – or do more – self-regulation of plastics, the plastics you buy, the ones you use and just how and where you dispose of it! Many small actions lead to enough greater changes. Here’s that donation link again.

This article was brought to you plastic-free!

Till next month,

I remain truly yours,

Tonny Rutakirwa,


Tonniez Group Holdings,

Serving since 28th December 2008.


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