Researching the eco-threat of microplastics
In Norway 8 000 tons of microplastics are produced every year and approximately half of it ends up in the ocean. Where does it all go?
Professor Ketil Hylland participates in a large European research project, EPHEMARE, studying the effects of microplastics on marine organisms.
The project at the Department of Biosciences focuses particularly on the effects microplastics may have on life in sediments, at the bottom of the ocean.
The seas of the world are severely polluted by plastic garbage and the World Economic Forum warned earlier this year that there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by the year 2050 if current trends are not reversed.
Kill a million seabirds
Scientists have calculated that plastics in the sea kill more than a million seabirds a year and in the North Sea nearly all Northern fulmars (95%) have plastic fragments in their stomach.
However, this is just the visible pollution. In addition, the world’s oceans receive large quantities of microplastics every year.
Both environmental organizations and the Norwegian Environment Agency agree that the “invisible” microplastics are a big threat to life in the ocean, but at the same time nobody really knows exactly where all the microplastics ends up.
According to a report made by the Norwegian Environment Agency in 2015, approximately 8 000 tons microplastics are produced annually in Norway alone and half of this ends up in the ocean.
– We have an estimate of how much microplastics ends up in the ocean every year, but at the same time we cannot account for where it goes. We do however suspect that a major part of the microplastics end up on the seafloor. Consequently, we will do a series of studies to investigate how and whether the microplastics affect organisms on and in the seafloor, explains Professor Ketil Hylland.
A growing eco-problem
Microplastics – plastic particles that in size are less than five millimeters – have the last couple of decades become an increasing environmental problem.
– We think that marine organisms can mistake small pieces of plastic for food, eat them and then develop internal injuries, problems with digestion or a feeling of fake fullness.
– Plastics also contain hazardous substances that may leak or be desorbed, hence causing damage to the health of marine organisms. When animals consume microplastics, hazardous substances can be transported further up the food chain. At this moment we do not know enough about this, says Hylland
Ketil Hylland and researchers at the Department of Biosciences was this autumn at sea in the Oslofjord with the research vessel F/F «Trygve Braarud»; a vessel that functions like a lab at sea with modern equipment. To prepare for experiments in aquarium systems, they collected sediments from the seafloor outside Drøbak at 100 meters depth.
Hylland and his collaborators then sieved the sediments to remove macrofauna and pebbles.
Experiments with sediments
During the winter of 2016-2017 the prepared sediments will be used to investigate how microplastic pollution may affect the organisms living in sediments.
– The reason why we removed macrofauna while on the research vessel is that we want the sediments to be ready for our upcoming studies. Although “microplastics” is the new environmental buzz-word, there are not many studies that actually test in which way it may cause damage to marine organisms, Hylland explains.
Car tires, Astroturf and Cosmetics
The Norwegian Environment Agency’s report from March 2015 states that wear and tear of car tires is the most substantial source of microplastics in Norway, amounting to 4 500 tons a year.
According to that report, the second largest source of microplastics is rubber granulate from Astroturf surfaces, at around 1 500 tons a year.
– Microplastics are ingredients in a range of products, e.g. in paint and maintenance products for ships and leisure boats. Manufacturers of personal care products add tiny plastic pieces in creams that scrub and cleanse the skin and toothpaste manufacturers have used microplastics in toothpaste to create an abrasive effect. The latter usage, however, have been somewhat reduced lately after a lot of attention was given to the fact that microplastics were transported directly from our own bathrooms into the ocean. Such particles are unfortunately not entirely removed by sewage treatment plants, says Hylland.
Healthy oceans and coastal areas
This new research project from Ketil Hylland is a part of the project EPHEMARE, which itself is part of the EU initiative JPI Oceans, a joint European research initiative with 21 member countries that altogether cover the coasts and offshore areas of Europe.
The overarching vision and goal of this initiative is to contribute to healthy and productive oceans and coastal areas.
– All in all, our project aims to examine the effects of microplastics on organisms in marine sediments, starting at the cellular level and including their ability to feed and move. In our experiments we are going to dose sediment-dwelling animals with controlled amounts of different microplastics, with and without environmental contaminants, and examine how and whether they are affected. We clearly need to know more about possible harmful effects of microplastics in the ocean, says Ketil Hylland.
(Translated from Norwegian into English by Espen Haakstad)
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