Microplastics are small plastic particles in the environment that are generally between 1 and 5 mm (0.039 and 0.197 in) although some are invisible to the human eye. Microplastics are mainly composed of six polymers: polyethylene, polypropylene and expanded polystyrene, which are more likely to float, and polyvinyl chloride, nylons and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which are more likely to sink. Microplastic sources include industrial products such as paints, abrasive cleaning agents and tyres, and personal care products such as toothpaste and skin cleaners, as well as fragmentation of larger plastics dumped into the oceans.
The UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microplastics works to raise awareness of the effects of microplastics on the environment. The Group works together to discuss issues related to microplastics and steps needed to tackle the issue and prevent harmful impacts on the environment, riverine and marine life and human health. Read its first report on Microplastics Policies for Government.
Nurdles are small lentil-sized pellets that are the preproduction building blocks for nearly all plastic goods, from soft-drink bottles to oil pipelines. Nurdles can be lost at sea from ships or at port when they are handled. They can also be spilt on land at industrial facilities or can float off down drains and ultimately, out to sea. Currents and wind disperse them and they are now washing up on beaches across the globe.
After entering the ocean, microplastics can be distributed globally with especially high concentrations in ocean gyres, but also close to population centres and shipping routes. Microplastics have been found on beaches, in surface waters, seabed sediments and in a wide variety of marine life. Plastics tend to absorb and concentrate contaminants from surrounding seawater and can also contain a high proportion of additive chemicals incorporated during manufacture. The UK government has banned the sale and manufacture of microbeads.
In 2015, The Environment Agency published a study into the impacts of microplastics on fish.
If you wish to report plastic pollution incidents (rather than discarded litter) call the Environment Agency on 0800 807060. In particular, please report any fresh nurdle spills or large accumulations of nurdles to allow investigation of sources.
In 2016, Southampton Solent University published a paper on the prevalence of microplastics in the Solent.
A Solent Forum placement student (Megan Tomlinson) produced a useful summary paper on microplastics in the Solent.
In 2020, Simon Slattery from the University of Portsmouth won a Prof Mike Clarke bursary award for his disseration - A Critical Investigation into Microplastic Accumulation, Transportation and Physical Processes in the Marine Environment in and around Langstone and Chichester Harbours, Central Southern England.
The Environment Agency is to trial technology to remove tiny pieces of plastic – known as 'nurdles' – that are a continuing problem at Local Nature Reserve Chessel Bay in Bitterne Manor. Local community group the Friends of Chessel Bay carries out regular planned litter picks at the site, but because nurdles are so small, it's very difficult to remove them - especially when they are mixed in with natural materials in amongst reeds. Now the Environment Agency has announced it's providing £5,000 later this year to fund a trial of technology that could help solve the problem. Developed in 2020, a machine apparently known as the 'Basking Shark' will be deployed. It's so named because it filters the environment for microplastics, and basking sharks are also susceptible to microplastic pollution because they filter the seawater for plankton and accidentally consume plastic. The tech has what's described as an "innovative sieving system that separates microplastics from sand, large sticks and seaweed", so the amount of important organic material removed should be minimised. A seven-metre wandering hose helps it get into nooks and crannies. The test will be happening in September 2021 once funding becomes available.
The University is putting its research into practice to transform Portsmouth into a global showcase for how to achieve a sustainable plastics future. The city is home to an increasing number of organisations and groups advocating urban sustainability, ocean conservation and plastic waste reduction.
Watch the Revolution Plastics video: https://vimeo.com/484394686.