On the trail of microplastics
The smallest plastic particles can be found everywhere in our environment. While there has long been a major debate about how we can stem the tide of microplastics, it is not yet clear how the particles affect organisms.
"There were about 3500 plastic particles per square kilometer on average. (…) Most of the pieces were hard, white, cylindrical pellets, about 0.25 to 0.5 centimeters in diameter, with rounded ends. Chemical weathering and wave action may have produced the pellet shape. Many pieces were brittle, suggesting that the plasticizers had escaped with weathering. Some had sharp edges, suggesting either recent discharge into the sea or fragments of recently broken larger pieces of plastic. A few particles (six percent) were colored green, blue, or red, and there were also a small number of clear plastic films. Several larger pieces have been identified as syringe caps, cigar holders, jewelry and buttons. From the multitude of identifiable objects, it was apparent that many types of plastic were present."
This is how the scientists Edward Carpenter and KL Smith from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported back in 1972 about the finds on their three-week research trip to the western Sargasso Sea, during which they combed the sea surface with the help of the finest nets - actually, to do that examine plankton. In addition to the tiny organisms, they encountered various plastic fragments, which they described in an article in the journal Science. But it was not until around 30 years later that marine biologist Richard Thompson coined the term we use today to describe tiny pieces of plastic in the environment: microplastics …