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By Sergio Fanjul
This curious anecdote, despite the naivety of the rubber ducks and other toys, reflects how quickly the synthetic waste that we throw (or end up for one reason or another) in the sea spreads. On planet Earth, enclosed within the circular currents that occur on the surface of the different oceans, there are huge floating islands formed by this garbage. But in recent times, scientists and ecologists have focused on another not so well-known aspect of the problem: microplastics. “These are small pieces of plastic, smaller than five millimeters, which may have been formed from large plastics (through the action of the sun or the waves) or which are specifically manufactured in that size, for example, for the cosmetic industry ”, explains Elvira Jiménez, head of Oceans at Greenpeace Spain, the environmental organization that has recently launched a campaign to raise awareness about the growing risk of plastics in fish and shellfish.
Every year, eight million tons of this material end up in the ocean (200 kilos per second): in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A recent study by the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) finds that 1,445 tons are housed in the Mediterranean Sea alone. "In fact, 97% of the waste we find is of this nature", observes Luis Francisco Ruiz-Orejón, a CSIC researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies in Blanes (Girona), where the analysis was carried out. "A hundred years ago, as described in the writings of Archduke Luis Salvador of Austria, it was a pristine sea, so the situation is worrying," the expert emphasizes.
Microplastics can enter small organisms and create wounds and lacerations, as well as unpredictable effects due to the chemical compounds that give them their color and flexibility. "It is known that some of them can be carcinogenic or alter the endocrine system," Ruiz-Orejón warns. But, in addition, through the trophic chain there is the risk that they will reach humans with the dark risk, in the absence of conclusive studies, of a similar damage. "Even if they are small amounts in water, if the basal organisms consume them, bioaccumulation could occur", explains the scientist. That is, the compounds accumulate in the tissues of the person who ingests them until they reach higher concentrations. A Greenpeace study has found microplastics in shellfish and fish such as tuna or swordfish.
"Another problem is that they can attract other substances and serve as a means of spreading pathogenic diseases," explains Jiménez, from Greenpeace. In this organization they believe that the situation has to lead us to rethink what the consumption system is like, reduce the volume of plastics used (it is estimated that in 2050 its use will be 900 times greater than in 1980) and improve waste management. "It is estimated that 80% of the plastics in the sea comes from the land", indicates the ecologist, that is, they have been abandoned on the coasts or in the riverbeds. Greenpeace Spain calls for measures such as the United Kingdom, which has prohibited the cosmetic industry from using microspheres (they are used in scrubs, soaps or toothpaste) or France, which has banned plastic plates and cutlery. And, of course, put the brakes on single-use bags. In general, the objective is to promote the circular economy, the one that reuses all waste as raw material. The underlying problem is that national legislation can be of little use in a global problem that is spreading across all oceans, as those rubber ducks did in 1992. And that a plastic can take up to six centuries to degrade (we could still find Cervantes's katiuskas).
The dissemination of the problem of microplastics is, of course, interesting when it comes to raising awareness of the general public about maritime pollution: although there are people who may be indifferent to the existence of large islands of garbage in the middle of nowhere, or the suffocation of distant turtles with the washers that hold the beverage cans together, the threat of microplastics entering their own body through their diet does cause concern. "This is no longer just an environmental issue, but it is turning against us," says Jiménez.
There are ways to avoid it
“Only about 25% of all plastic waste is recycled and almost 50% is still buried in landfills in the European Union. It's too much ”, warned the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, on April 20 at a conference in Brussels. Thus, some tips to reduce the use of plastics would be these: opt for reusable bags; do not use plastic glasses, plates or cutlery; avoid packaging and buying food in bulk; drink tap water rather than bottled; avoid plastic toys and disposable razors; and do not use cosmetics that contain microspheres.