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The Impact of Microplastics in the Ocean

The impact of microplastics in the ocean is alarming, threatening that sooner or later, we might end up diving among trash. We hope this dire prediction does not come true, but what scientists do confirm is that small plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters in size are invading our oceans at an alarming rate.

These tiny pollutants infiltrate the marine food chain, from plankton to whales. Their impact is devastating, endangering the survival of many species.

However, beyond being firsthand witnesses to this problem, divers have the potential to become agents of change.

In this article, we explore how microplastics are affecting our oceans and how diving can be a powerful tool to combat this threat.

impact of Microplastics in the Ocean - 1 - el impacto de los microplásticos en el océano

1. What are Microplastics?

The Administración Nacional Oceánica y Atmosférica (NOAA) defines microplastics as solid plastic particles measuring less than five millimeters. They are insoluble in water and non-biodegradable. It turns out that our seas are plagued with these tiny plastic pieces.


1.1. Origin and Sources of Microplastics in the Ocean

The main source? Microfibers from our clothing! Every time we wash those sports jerseys or tight “pleather” pants, we release thousands of these fibers, which end up in the ocean as microplastics. But clothing isn’t the only culprit.

  • The cosmetics we use daily also contain microplastics. Those sparkles that give a “glamorous” touch to our faces are actually tiny plastic particles, which are disastrous for the environment.
  • Car tires breaking down causes huge microplastics in oceans. Every year, we churn out about 2 billion tires worldwide, and just in Europe, tire wear dumps around 500,000 tons of microplastics into the environment.
  • Fishing nets and other fishing gear wear out with use, releasing plastic fragments into the sea.
  • Plastic waste from our daily lives, such as bags, bottles, and straws, also break down into microplastics over time.
  • Industries also contribute to the release of microplastics into the environment through their production processes.


1.2. Types of Microplastics

  • Primary Microplastics: These are already small in size when manufactured. They are found in the form of granules or microbeads and often come from the cosmetic and textile industries. They represent between 15% and 31% of the microplastics in the sea.
  • Secondary Microplastics: These form from the degradation of larger plastic objects. Fabrics, fishing nets, bottles… everything turns into microplastics! Between 69% and 81% of the microplastics present in the water are secondary microplastics.
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2. The Magnitude of the Microplastics in the Ocean Problem

It is estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles floating in the oceans worldwide, according to a 2017 UN estimate. This is 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.

Where are the microplastics in the sea concentrated?

Believe it or not, there are seas filled with plastic debris where microplastics float on the surface like a thick soup. These are the “plastic islands”! They are found in ocean gyres, areas where marine currents concentrate floating debris. There are five ocean gyres: two in the North Pacific, one in the South Pacific, one in the North Atlantic, one in the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean Gyre. The largest of these plastic soups is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii.

Runoff from rivers and human activities near the coast contribute to this concentration. Densely populated urban areas, ports, and industrial zones are also hotspots for the accumulation of microplastics.


3. The Impact of Microplastics on Marine Life

The problem becomes even more serious when scientists discover that microplastics are poisoning our marine animal friends.

Unfortunately, microplastics in the oceans are ingested by a wide variety of marine animals, from the smallest plankton to giant whales. Mussels, oysters, and other filter-feeding animals trap them while performing this vital function. Fish and whales mistake them for plankton or small fish, and other animals, like crabs, inhale them through their gills and then swallow them.

What Damage Do Microplastics Cause to Marine Animals?

Block Their Digestive System: Imagine eating a delicious pizza but instead of pepperoni, you find bits of plastic. That’s what happens to marine animals: microplastics get stuck in their digestive systems, preventing them from digesting food and absorbing the nutrients they need to survive. Over time, this can lead to malnutrition, causing weakness, disease, and even death.

Chemical Poisoning: Microplastics are not only a physical problem but also carry harmful chemicals. They are made with additives and toxic substances that are released into the bodies of animals when they ingest microplastics, poisoning them and causing damage to their organs.

Behavioral and Reproductive Alteration: Studies have shown that exposure to these pollutants can alter their mating behavior, reduce their fertility, and even cause malformations in their offspring.

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4. Threat of Ocean Microplastics to Divers

While diving allows us to admire the beauty of the underwater world, it also exposes us to an invisible enemy: microplastics. These tiny plastic particles, smaller than 5 millimeters, can be accidentally ingested during dives, with consequences that are not yet fully understood.

How Can Microplastics Affect Human Health? Although the evidence on their direct impact on human health is still limited, studies have shown that plastics contain a variety of chemicals, some of which are potentially toxic. Over 10,000 chemicals are used in the manufacturing of plastics, and more than 2,400 of them are considered potentially concerning.

Contamination of Diving Equipment: Microplastics can adhere to neoprene suits, masks, regulators, and other equipment, spreading to other marine environments.


5. Against the Impact of Microplastics in the Ocean: What Can Divers Do?

But all is not lost: divers can play a crucial role in the fight against this problem.

  1. Marine Debris Collection: With each dive, we can make a difference. Let’s conduct underwater cleanups and collect marine debris, to prevent these plastics from becoming microplastics. Let’s help create a cleaner and healthier ocean!
  2. Participation in Research Projects: We can take part in scientific projects that study microplastic pollution. Our data and observations will be crucial for better understanding this problem and finding solutions.
  3. Awareness and Activism: Our experience and knowledge are invaluable. Let’s share them! We can be the voice of the ocean. Let’s educate other divers and the general public about the importance of protecting our oceans from microplastics. Together, we can raise awareness and generate positive change!
  4. Collaboration: Unity is strength. Let’s work together with divers, scientists, environmental organizations, and governments to effectively address microplastic pollution.
  5. Reducing Environmental Impact: Every small gesture counts. Let’s adopt responsible practices as divers and citizens.
    • Avoid using single-use plastics during dives.
    • Practice responsible fishing and avoid accidental capture of marine animals.
    • Support organizations that combat microplastic pollution.
    • Reduce our personal plastic consumption.
    • Choose products with sustainable packaging.
    • Properly recycle plastic waste.
    • Support public policies that promote the reduction of plastic use and the protection of the marine environment.

Together, we can become a powerful force to protect our oceans and create a more sustainable future! Share this message with your friends, family, and community. Let’s make the fight against microplastics in the ocean a global wave!