Plastic debris comes in all different shapes and sizes, but those that are less than five millimeters in length are called microplastics. Some microplastics come from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller bits over time. Another type of microplastics – called microbeads – are intentionally manufactured tiny plastic beads that are added as exfoliants to some health and beauty products.
According to a new study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, researchers have confirmed and quantified the presence of microplastics in terrestrial and aquatic birds of prey in Florida for the first time. This research is important because these birds of prey, including ospreys, hawks, and owls, are critical to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The accumulation of microplastics in their digestive systems could lead to a myriad of health issues, including starvation.
Working with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Florida, the research team from the University of Central Florida was able to examine the stomachs of 63 deceased birds. The team found microplastics in every bird it examined, extracting nearly 1,200 pieces of plastic in total. Microfibers represented 86% of the plastic pieces.
It’s common for plastic microfibers to enter ecosystems through the wastewater from washing machines. A 2016 study found that 700,000 plastic fibers come off in a typical wash. While there are lots of variables, synthetic fabrics account for 60% of the material used in clothing worldwide.
To help cut down on plastic in the environment, the research team suggests removing plastics from open landfills, purchasing only natural fabrics and clothing, and modifying water treatment facilities to capture microplastics.
Photo, posted April 15, 2016, courtesy of Andy Morffew via Flickr.