Highest ever levels of microplastic found in English river

Microplastic sperules in toothpaste, about 30 µm in diameter.
CC BY-SA 3.0 Dantor /Wikimedia Commons

When I wrote about Bali's biggest ever beach clean up, Ruben rightly pointed out that we need top-of-the-pipe solutions to reduce waste and pollution in the first place. I continue to contend that it's not an either/or proposition—actions like Bali's, and like the #2MinuteBeachClean can be used to engage folks in political solutions too. Nevertheless, a headline from The Guardian reminds us of just how important a more systemic solution really is:

Scientists have just found the highest ever levels of micro plastic recorded in a river. And that river was in Manchester, England. Worse still, after recent floods and storms, 70% of the microplastics sampled were washed away elsewhere.

Rachel Hurley of the University of Manchester, lead author of the study which was published in Nature Geoscience, explained that the sheer volume of pollution from just one river has led scientists to revise up their calculations of how much microplastic there is in the world's oceans from a previous estimate of 5 trillion pieces:

"This is a small to medium sized catchment in the north of England, it is one flood event, it is just one year - there is no way that [5tn global] estimate is right."

What's perhaps even more disturbing is that rivers in England are not typically thought of as a primary source of plastics anymore. Given the fact that previous studies have identified 10 rivers in Asia and Africa as a source of 95% of marine plastic pollution, there's a good chance that the levels detected near Manchester are just (sorry!) a drop in the ocean compared to what's going on on a global scale.

Fortunately, changes are beginning to happen. Much of the pollution in Manchester was apparently microbeads, which were finally banned from personal care products in the UK (and Canada) earlier this year. The UK is considering single-use plastics taxes, and corporate plastic bans are beginning to take effect.

But more needs to be done, and fast. As citizens pick up trash on the beaches of Mumbai, school girls pick up litter on their way to and from school, and businesses start building marine plastic supply chains, we must leverage these efforts to create global action on this extremely dangerous problem.

If you're still not convinced it's a problem, consider the fears of the scientists in England: Hurley, whose team could only sample plastics the width of roughly a human hair or larger, is even more concerned about the smaller stuff—plastics so tiny that they can get in our bodies, work their way through gut membranes, and end up in your actual blood stream.

Think of that next time you're sipping on a straw. And then, more importantly, don't forget to vote.

Highest ever levels of microplastic found in English river
The levels were so high that scientists are revising up their estimates for global marine microplastic pollution.

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