Painting our oceans with microplastics – time to make better choices

By Fam Charko

Animation of Fam Charko working on the Yarra river by Serene Lau 2022

“The choices that we make on a daily basis matter. “

Fam Charko (MSc) is the senior marine biologist of the Port Phillip EcoCentre. She has been researching microplastics pollution in the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers and Port Phillip Bay for 7 years. She uses evidence gathered by citizen science to inform the EcoCentre’s advocacy work and create legislative change for healthier waterways.

It’s been less than two decades since the word ‘microplastic’ was invented by a marine biologist from the UK, to describe pieces of plastic pollution smaller than 5 mm in diameter. These days, after years of scientific research, microplastics have built a notorious reputation for their ubiquitous presence in, well… everywhere. They are in the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat.

“And this is an issue if you want to advocate for change: you need to have evidence of how big the problem is.”

The problem with microplastics is that they are small, which makes them ingestible by a wide range of animals, including small fauna like oysters, fish and even plankton. This results in all kinds of issues, from gut blockages and starvation to the accumulation of poisonous chemicals up the food chain.

Large plastic items can easily be caught by litter traps in rivers and storm water drains. But microplastics literally slip between the cracks of our filtering systems, continuing on their merry way to turn our oceans into plastic soup.

The EcoCentre started researching microplastics in the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers in 2014, because back then we had no idea how much plastic pollution was making its way down from the suburbs of Melbourne to Port Phillip Bay. And this is an issue if you want to advocate for change: you need to have evidence of how big the problem is.

For 6 years we took monthly water samples in the rivers, which were analysed by passionate EcoCentre volunteers. We found that nearly 2.5 billion pieces of plastic pollution make their way into the Bay from just the surface waters of the Yarra and Maribyrnong. Of this 85% (2 billion) were microplastics!

Some of these resembled what looked like flakes of paint. One only has to look at some of the old Melbourne weatherboard houses to understand what the sources could be.

Paints are made from pigments and binders, both of which are mostly synthetically produced. For example, acrylic paint is a plastic-based paint, which makes it water resistant with a smooth finish. With time and wear, paint flakes make their way into the oceans as microplastics.

Scientists estimate that 1.5 to 2.5 million tonnes of plastic paints enter the oceans every year. This is the rough equivalent of 150-250 billion (!) plastic bottles. In one study, of the non-fiber shaped microplastics caught in plankton nets in the North Atlantic Ocean, the majority turned out to be paint flakes, making them potentially the second most abundant microplastic type in the ocean.

The choices that we make on a daily basis matter. Educating yourself and your community matters. Choosing plastic-free products and packaging matters. Adapting our consumer behavior after learning a new fact matters, especially if we invest some time into researching non-toxic alternatives. And thankfully, in many cases they already exist.

Published at serenekitchen.art on 12/09/2022

Published by serenekitchen

Melbourne-based Sustainable Visual Artist

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