Is There Plastic in Paradise?

Patti, T.B., Fobert, E.K., Reeves, S.E., et al. Spatial distribution of microplastics around an inhabited coral island in the Maldives, Indian Ocean. Science of the Total Environment (2020).

A million little pieces of plastic

Have a look at your desk or items next to you. How much plastic do you see? How much are you not seeing? From single-use plastics to plastic furniture to microbeads found in beauty products, plastics are being produced at an alarming rate. Global plastic production in 2018 reached 348 million tonnes, and that number will likely continue to rise. It’s not a surprise plastic is being found all over the world, including places it shouldn’t be – like our oceans. The amount of plastics present in the oceans is likely to quadruple by 2040.

Plastics and microplastics. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Despite plastic’s usefulness to humans, it serves as an environmental pollutant that is detrimental to ecosystems and the species which inhabit them. In the Canadian Arctic, birds’ eggs were found with plastic-derived chemicals inside them which caused birth defects, hormone disturbances, and other diseases in the chicks. In the United Kingdom, most sharks (67%) have microplastics in their stomachs which can pose digestive and health issues, and even lead to death. And what about humans? Humans are consumers of seafood and ocean byproducts, which contain microplastics. This requires further investigation but likely has an impact.

Microplastics are plastic particles that are less than or equal to 5 mm. These are specifically manufactured for beauty products (primary microplastics), or broken down from other plastic waste into tiny pieces by the sun or waves (secondary microplastics). Because of their size, these particles easily can enter the ocean through run-off, sewage, or improper recycling and stay for decades in that environment.


Is it present in paradise?

Microplastics have been found worldwide, from the highest mountains to the ocean, even falling from the sky. But what about a remote, tropical island, like the Maldives in the middle of the Indian Ocean? A place we all view as an untouched paradise, far removed from human impacts. Here, the biodiversity and abundance of the underwater world is astounding. The Maldives archipelago hosts 3.1% of the world’s total coral biomass as well as endless communities of fish, sharks, and seabirds.

Despite its natural beauty and relative isolation, the Maldives is like many other countries across the globe struggling to manage all of the garbage they’re producing. As tourism increases, more waste is created and it’s difficult to find a place to put all of it. Often, waste is burned or moved to small islands, or even made into a small island of garbage in the ocean. All of this creates further microplastic pollution and damages the environment.

In this study, researchers wanted to find out just how much microplastics were in the water in order to see how pristine this tourist spot really was. The island of Naifaru, a coral-reef island in the Maldives, was chosen because of its dense population and booming tourism industry. Sediment samples were collected around the entire island to examine the beach habitats and determine the number of microplastics. The scientists used a centrifuge to recover the microplastics from the sand and then filtered them out using a vacuum. Afterward, scientists sifted through the samples in Petri-dishes searching for the presence of microplastics. Using microscopes, scientists identified pieces of plastic that were less than 5mm, which were then photographed.

A bird’s-eye view of the Naifaru, Maldives, the study island. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, JaufarAbdulla)

The hard truth

Microplastics were found in ALL the samples, with a total of 1244 pieces discovered. The average concentration of microplastics on Naifaru was 278 microplastic particles per kg of sediment. Unfortunately, this is actually one of the highest densities of microplastics in the world.

Most pieces were less than 0.4 mm, which is a size easily ingested by marine animals, ranging from corals to whales. Most pieces were blue and red, which are often a favored color for fish species to eat. The effects of microplastics on this richly biodiverse island ecosystem could be devastating.

Researchers point to the island’s staggering increase in size and population in the last 15 years as a reason for the amount of microplastics in the ecosystem. Much of the island has been filled in with extra sand, in a process called land reclamation, to create more space and area for tourism. Tourists are another factor and account for 21% of the waste generated. There is also poor management of sewage and wastewater near the oceans and beaches, creating run-off and pollution. This is a similar story across all islands in the Maldives, not solely Naifaru.

The Maldives economy is dependent on the islands and surrounding ecosystems. The local waste management practices require improvement, as well as a reduction in the total amount of waste generated. Tourists should research before arriving and attempt to reduce their plastic and other waste when visiting. If these current practices aren’t corrected, the Maldives will continue to produce high concentrations of microplastics, which could potentially destroy the ecosystem, the marine life, and the island communities.

A Laysan Albatross chick rests in marine debris. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA Marine Debris Program)

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