Invisible ‘Microplastics’ Becoming Major Ocean Pollutant

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By Wachira Kigotho

The world’s biggest environmental network is calling for a global effort to address microscopic plastics that it says are quietly harming the world’s oceans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says that unlike larger plastic wastes that are well known as ocean pollutants, microplastics are not visible.

“But their release into oceans has far-reaching consequences as they have potential to enter the food chain,” said the group’s Feb. 23 report.

Microplastics are small plastic particulates that are usually less than 5 millimeters wide and are classified as primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics originate mainly from scrubbing agents in toiletries, cosmetics, particles from the erosion of tires and abrasion of synthetic textiles. Secondary microplastics are caused by the degradation of larger plastic items into smaller plastic fragments once exposed to the marine environment.

Several countries in recent years—including the U.S.—have banned microbeads from cosmetics and personal-care products such as toothpaste. The international organization backs a United Nations Environment Program proposal requiring a systemic approach and entering into a dialogue with all stakeholders, from product design to urban infrastructure planning.

“Technologies are readily available and the challenge is more a political and financial one,” said the report.

About 1.5 million tons of microplastics pollute the oceans each year, the organization said.

“The main pathways of these plastics into the ocean are through road runoff (66 percent), wastewater treatment systems (25 percent) and wind transfer (7 percent),” according to the report.

Most microplastics are generated through unintentional losses through abrasion, weathering, spills during production, transport, use, maintenance or recycling of products. “Taking into account that most microplastics originate from losses of product use and maintenance, the problem should be tackled with a global producer-consumer perspective,” said the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Wachira Kigotho in Nairobi at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

For More Information

The report, "Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources," is available at

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