Investigating Plastic in the Azores
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are generally defined as pieces of plastic under 5mm in size. But, the term covers a range of different plastic types in different forms and sizes! One form of microplastic is a nurdle – these are tiny pellets that are melted down to make larger plastic products. There are occasions where whole shipping containers carrying these have been washed overboard, spewing millions into the ocean, so you can often find these in the tideline of beaches.
There are also fragments of microplastic that come from larger pieces that have broken down over time. And, a newer form of microplastic pollution that is becoming more well-known, is microfibres. These are minuscule fibres that wash out of our clothes every time we put them in the wash – they’re too small to be filtered by water treatment plants and consequently make their way into waterways and the environment.
Microplastics in the Azores
Sao Miguel is one of the nine Azorean islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; it is a beautiful volcanic island with a varied, interesting and often spectacular coastline and in each and every place we visited there was evidence of plastic whether it was plastic bottles being washed up on the rocky black shoreline in the north west or large quantities of minuscule microplastics lying hidden in the tide line on the sandy beaches in the south. Whilst swimming in an idyllic island inlet we saw (and collected) tiny pieces of plastic swirling around in the water and were shocked by the accumulation of rubbish on a beach in the north – plastic waste was being brought in by the incoming tide and was mixing with littered plastic flowing on to the beach from a river.
What is the problem with microplastics?
Being easily able to find microplastics in all of the locations on Sao Miguel demonstrates the size and complexity of the plastic pollution problem; the fact that they can even be found in places as remote as the Azores shows how prevalent and extremely difficult to manage they are.
As already mentioned, microplastics in the ocean come from a variety of sources: large pieces of ocean plastic get eroded down from the sun’s UV Rays and the energy of waves; litter from boats; litter washed or blown from land, and shipping containers that get lost overboard in storms or rough seas. Once in the ocean, these Microplastics attract chemicals and toxins from the water around them to create a highly dangerous toxic soup that, due to the persistence of plastic’s material properties, never goes away. A significant, but to-date unmeasurable quantity of this plastic soup enters the seafood chain; initially ingested by zoo plankton, small fish and filter feeders, and then being eaten by larger fish and ultimately humans at the end of the food chain. The effects of this plastic on our health is relatively unknown, but the current science suggests it could be carcinogenic and disrupt our hormonal systems.
What can schools do to help?
Schools are in the perfect position to raise awareness of the issues associated with plastic pollution, consumption and waste, but more importantly, to pique the interest young people in the idea that they can do something to make a difference – to take action … have their voices heard. As we’ve seen with the Climate Action marches around the world, young people are not only interested in the big issues affecting their futures, they are becoming increasingly unimpressed with the inaction of politicians and world leaders. Informed and empowered young people – the next generation – is therefore probably the best hope we have of instigating immediate and impactful change.
We, at Kids Against Plastic, think that this ‘I can do something’ mindset should start as early as possible, in primary schools and continue into the Secondary school phase: a smarter use of plastic – or being Plastic Clever as we like to call it – is the single most important thing that pupils can do as individuals and schools can do as institutions. With plastic it’s not about ‘all or nothing’ – getting rid of plastic completely would be impossible and impractical (remember, plastic does have its uses) – but removing non-essential single-use plastic such as plastic bottles, cups and lids, straws and bags is relatively easy for anyone to achieve.
To help schools achieve ‘Plastic Clever’ status, we have created all of the free resources and materials needed and made them available on the Kids Against Plastic website kidsagainstplastic.co.uk We have over 600 schools registered, but that number is growing daily. Maybe your school will be next? We do hope so.
And hopefully, in the not too distant future, the flow of plastic into our oceans will be turned off, and our holiday destinations and places we visit in years to come – like the Azores – will have less plastic pollution on its coastlines, and Plastic Soup will be well and truly off the seafood menu.