Microplastics in Canada’s Ecosystems

What research says about the threat they pose

David Salvatori/ Alamy

By: Adam Chogrhi, Melissa Cohan, Adam D’Addario

Plastic waste is some of the most damaging things to litter our planet. Contaminating it in a variety of ways from the air we breathe and the water we drink, to destroying our oceans and their aquatic life.

Not only that, but it’s also seeping into our soil, and contaminating our food sources on land; both plants and animals alike. These tiny plastics are being detected at the North Pole, the South Pole, and everywhere in between. As of right now, our ecosystems and our health as humans could be in serious danger. Meanwhile, nothing seems to be changing.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments that measure 5 millimeters or less. They come from many different places such as our shampoo, our clothing, and many other items that can break down.

When they start to break down little fragments get released into the environment and water systems. This can lead to devastating effects and can become very harmful to marine animals ingesting these plastics.

Ryan Prosser is a professor at The University of Guelph who is researching the impacts that the Canadian ecosystem is facing. One of Prossers’ current research projects is called, “The risk of Microplastics to Canada’s ecosystem.”

He says microplastics show how the human species has an addiction to plastics. They are found in Canadian waters and the environment which shows that Canada does not know how to manage and control their plastic waste.

Every year, over 80 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans around the world. That’s not the only type of plastic that can be found, mega and macro plastics are killing our larger marine mammals by ensnarement and ingestion.

What happens when an animal ingests microplastic into their body?

According to Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, they say once an animal (such as a bird or fish) consumes microplastics into their system it can block the gastrointestinal tract. This can lead to making the animals feel full when they are not. Microplastics can affect their health and their physical conditions.

Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative says that in order to limit the ways animals consume microplastics, we have to limit our reliance on single-use plastics. The only problem is 64 percent of Canadians admitted to not reusing things like plastic straws as recently as 2021.

A study by Statistics Canada said that close to 20-39 percent of people used plastic straws within the average week. On top of that, the majority of people who took part in the study said they do not reuse their plastic straws. However, 97 percent of people said they use their own grocery bags when shopping at a grocery store. This is a good way to limit our use. According to Oceana, Canadians use almost 15 billion plastic bags every year.

Microplastics in our oceans

Microplastics are much more difficult to detect and track, due to the constantly varying currents in the oceans. They are described almost like confetti, but where confetti on land is much easier to see, only about one percent of the ocean's ‘confetti plastic’ is found on the ocean’s surface.

The remaining 99 percent is found flowing underwater, traveling through different currents which are moving them to every part of the world’s five oceans, under the ocean floor, and mixing into the sand sediment itself. This is not only causing dire effects on marine life, but also on our ecosystems. As Prosser says, these tiny plastics are being found in the deepest parts of our oceans.

Once these plastics enter our oceans and begin to break down from their original plastic product, they travel through the currents and end up in the ecosystems that serve as homes to some marine life, including algae, zooplankton, fish, sea turtles, and birds.

When looking at the statistics surrounding which country is dumping the most plastic into our oceans, we find that Canada only emits <0.01kg per person of plastic waste into the ocean, whereas countries like the Philippines emit 3.3kg per person.

It is important to note, however, that Canada has broken international rules by dumping more than one hundred shipping containers worth of garbage labeled as “plastics for recycling” into the Philippines.

Monitoring and controlling these waste dumps is easier said than done, especially when our “recycling” rarely ever makes it to the proper facilities.

While understanding the effects microplastics have on our ecosystem is important, Prosser points out that a bigger issue is how we manage our plastic waste.

Solid waste diversion is up overall between 2002-2018 however these numbers are also accounting for paper, organic, metal, construction, glass, household, and other types of waste.

Prosser says that only 10-20 percent of plastics we recycle actually get recycled, the truth is that number is slightly lower. According to the government of Canada, only 9 percent of what we recycle actually gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, or the environment such as our lakes and oceans.

When it comes to waste diversion in tonnes, it becomes clear which type of waste is being diverted more. On the higher end, there are paper and organic materials. On the lower end is where plastics exist. Only 0.355 million tonnes of plastic waste was diverted and disposed of properly in 2018.

So only 0.355 million tonnes of the over 3 million tonnes of plastic waste that Canadians throw away every year is being recycled.

Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are still ending up in our landfills, our lakes, and our oceans.

So, whats the solution?

We are told to recycle. We are told to reduce our plastic use. But even in doing all those things, most of these plastics end up everywhere else other than where they should be.

As Prosser says, the evidence is inconclusive on how harmful microplastics are to our ecosystems. What is evident is that macroplastics are harmful. Attention and efforts should be focused on how to divert and dispose of them properly so that every time we put an item in the blue bin it does not end up in our environment.

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