Beads on the beach – Investigating the true extent of microplastic pollution on Scotland’s beaches

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Search for plasticMicroplastics are solid plastic items less than 5mm in size. They were first detected in the marine environment several decades ago and are now known to occur in all of the world’s oceans.

Evidence is mounting that microplastics are being ingested by a variety of marine and freshwater organisms. They might even be entering the food chain and be eaten by humans. The Scottish Government has recognised microplastics as an area of concern and included them in the Scottish marine litter strategy.

We can distinguish between primary microplastics that are produced to be a small size, and secondary microplastics, that come from larger plastic items breaking down to micro-sized pieces. You might have heard of ‘microbeads’; these are primary microplastics added to cosmetics and personal care products for a variety of reasons e.g. as a replacement for natural options in facial scrubs. Fibres can make up a large proportion of microplastics in the environment, and originate from synthetic clothing being washed, or from fragmentation of synthetic ropes used in shipping and fishing.
We are supporting research into the presence and distribution of microplastics in Scottish freshwater and marine environments, as well as understanding the fate of microplastics in wastewater treatment systems. We encourage the use of common methodologies and definitions (e.g. size classes) in microplastic monitoring, as well as carrying out limited monitoring of microplastics during our routine survey work. Furthermore, we promote best practice in regulated industries to prevent plastic material and litter from entering the environment in the first place.

Research into microplastics

Research on the distribution and impact of microplastics in Scotland is co-ordinated by the Scottish Microplastic Research Group, of which SEPA is a member. This group has been formed as a community project under the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland.

On 4 March 2016, staff from our Marine Ecology and Chemistry departments attended a workshop run by the Scottish Microplastic Research Group. The workshop was carried out on a sunny but cold day at Erskine Beach, Glasgow, a site which had been previously sampled for microplastics by students from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).

Separating the microplastics

Separating the microplastics

The workshop compared two sampling techniques in order to provide a sampling protocol which can be used by others throughout Scotland. Both techniques sample the high water line, as it is assumed that the majority of microplastics will be deposited there on the receding tide.

Back at the UWS campus in Paisley, the density separation of microplastics from sediments was demonstrated, where the plastic particles float on a salt solution while the heavier sand settles on the bottom. Furthermore, a spectroscopic method to identify the chemical composition of plastic pieces was shown. A spectroscope is an optical device for producing and observing a spectrum of light or radiation from any source. It is hoped that the data produced from the workshop will provide the basis of a scientific paper as guidance for further research into microplastics.

What can you do?

• Avoid products with microbeads where they are not necessary or where alternatives exist. The Beat the microbeads campaign provides lists and an app to guide consumers to products that do not contain microbeads. Many manufacturers have already pledged to phase out plastic microbeads by the end of 2016.
• Prevent plastic from entering the environment and forming secondary microplastics. Plastics are a valuable resource that should not be lost into the environment through improper disposal. All actions that ensure plastics are properly reused or recycled will help.
• Do not rely on biodegradable plastics, as they will not degrade within our lifetime if they enter the water or sediments. Biodegradable plastics might also reduce the ability to recycle plastics.

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