Study reveals link between climate change and microplastic pollution


Marine researchers at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology have conducted a groundbreaking study, which highlights for the first time a direct link between plastic pollution and climate change.

The team, headed by Dr João Frias, of the GMIT Marine and Freshwater Research Centre, tested the plastic polymers known as Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) - found in plastic milk bottles and shopping bags - and found they released the highest concentrations of greenhouse gases - including methane and ethylene - to the environment when exposed to solar radiation.

The study, entitled ‘Microplastics in the marine environment: sources, impacts and recommendations’ was published last week ahead of European Green Week 2021 next week.

It revealed the bulk of microplastic waste clogging up our oceans consists of microfibres from clothes.

It notes that the agriculture sector is responsible for the lion’s share of plastics and microplastics in the marine environment from the use of plastic seed coatings and plastic mulching and the spreading of sludge from wastewater treatment plants.

The shipping industry is also a culprit, with1,816 containers lost at sea in 2020 alone while the fishing industry is also responsible for plastic pollution through lost, abandoned and discarded fishing gear, the researchers found.

The implications of plastic pollution on marine and animal life are far reaching, the report authors noted.

“From the base of the food chain (plankton) to the largest marine mammals, are currently threatened by the levels of microplastics in our oceans. It is predicted that by 2050, 99pc of all seabirds will have plastic in their digestive systems. All marine turtle species are impacted by plastic pollution (ingestion and/or entanglement).”

However, Dr Frias noted that not all is lost if action is taken now to mitigate the problem.

“Complex global challenges such as microplastic pollution are not beyond our reach as humans to solve when we work together. Sustainability and circularity link all sectors, pathways and sources described in this report. It is important to tackle sources to flatten the plastic curve, particularly at the production and disposal stages.”

Co-author Dr Róisín Nash said: “We cannot deny that climate change is happening. We need policymakers to act decisively and take positive steps in tackling plastic pollution and its many and varied effects on marine ecosystems and on climate change.”

The report proposes a number of short and long-term recommendations aimed to “encourage decision-makers to take a holistic approach when exploring environmental issues within Europe. The plastic pollution problem is a complex multi-stakeholder process with many cross-sector linkages, which cannot be successfully addressed in isolation,” the authors concluded.

Source – The Irish Independent