A new study highlighted the Maldives with the highest microplastic pollution. It could severely impact marine life and aquatic ecosystems around the island nation.
The record-high microplastic pollution in the Maldives was revealed by Flinders University, a public university in Australia. Marine scientists found waters around Naifaru highly concentrated with microplastics. The concentration was even greater than the microplastics levels in one state of India. The amount of plastic garbage in the Maldives could threaten both human and aquatic life, especially ecosystems hosting diverse lifeforms. They published their findings in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The Most Common Sources of Microplastics
Microplastics are plastics with a size of less than five millimeters in length. These are microscopic plastic materials that can be ingested by humans and animals. The presence of microplastics in the ocean is due to the break down of large plastic items, such as plastic bottles and single-use plastic bags. But microplastics can be present in other bodies of water because of contamination. If natural bodies of water are contaminated by city drains, microplastics will certainly reach the open sea. And once in the ocean, microplastics float for decades unless degraded or consumed by marine animals.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, as of May 10, 2019, most microplastics were from synthetic textiles at 35%. It was followed by car tires at 28%, city dust at 24%, road markings at 7%, marine coatings at 3.7%, personal care products at 2%, and plastic pellets at 0.3%. These sources shed microplastics into the ocean through natural bodies of water and natural water phenomena like rain. When rain drains into rivers and streams, microplastics could reach the ocean without hindrance. As such, innovative means to filter water must be applied to remove as many microplastics as possible.
Meanwhile, people have no idea of eating, drinking, and breathing microplastics on a daily basis. Because there are numerous sources, humans are constantly exposed to tiny fragments of plastic in various settings. As of June 6, 2019, the average number of microplastics found in bottled water was 94.37 per gram per liter per cubic meter, according to four studies. About 32.27 microplastics per gram per liter per cubic meter in beer were estimated by three studies. In the air, the average was 9.8 per gram per liter per cubic meter based on two studies.
Tap water was estimated by one study with 4.24 microplastics per gram per liter per cubic meter. Sugar was also determined by one study with 0.44 microplastics per gram per liter per cubic meter. Even honey showed 0.10 microplastics per gram per liter per cubic meter, according to two studies. These figures showed that every individual regardless of age are likely exposed to microplastics.
Maldives Found with Alarming Microplastic Pollution
The small island nation of Maldives is recognized for its beautiful coastline and mesmerizing landscapes. However, the Maldives archipelago is facing a major environmental threat: microplastics. These plastic particles can potentially ruin marine ecosystems that the Maldives depend on for its tourism. Without healthy aquatic ecosystems around it, the nation may face a critical tourism problem, which may result in economic losses and high unemployment rates.
Marine scientists at Flinders found that threat after investigating sites off the coast of Naifaru, the most populous island in Lhaviyani Atoll – the administrative division of the Maldives. The sites showed alarming levels of plastic pollution in sand. The levels predicted the estimated amount of microplastic present around the island. And based on their published paper, microplastics were everywhere on the said island.
"Current waste management practices in the Maldives cannot keep up with population growth and the pace of development. The small island nation encounters several challenges regarding waste management systems and has seen a 58% increase of waste generated per capita on local islands in the last decade," said Karen Burke da Silva, the corresponding author of the study and a professor from the college of science and engineering at Flinders.
In the study, the team led by researcher Toby Patti examined 22 sampling sites across Naifaru. Sediments were obtained from fore reef, reef flat, and beach environments. The samples were analyzed for five millimeters or less of plastic materials. Density separation and microscope enumeration isolated 1,244 individual microplastic pieces. About 49% of those pieces were filamentous while 51% were fragmented. Filamentous pieces resembled filaments and threats, and fragmented pieces were broken parts of original materials without specific shapes.
All 22 sites were confirmed with record-high microplastic concentrations. However, scientists discovered no significant connection between microplastic concentration or size to all regions or environments. Due to the lack of substantial connection, scientists concluded that the island is surrounded by high levels of microplastics. The microplastics were ingestible by aquatic animals and could result in adverse effects on nearby marine life. Coral reef species were mentioned likely most susceptible to the environmental threat.
Patti highlighted the numerical values of microplastics in the island. The microplastics levels around Naifaru were between 55 and 1,127.5 microplastics per kilogram. That was greater than a highly populated site at Tamil Nadu, India, which showed levels between 3 and 611 microplastics per kilogram. The levels at Naifaru were close to the 197 to 822 microplastics per kilogram of inhabited and uninhabited islands in the Maldives.
Scientists explained that the ocean currents from nearby countries in the Indian Ocean were likely the culprit behind the record-high levels. The currents would bring microplastics from other nations and deposit them around the islands of Maldives. At the same time, the island nation lacked sufficient systems to control pollution. Existing waste management practices and protocols could not match the rapid flow of development in the country. If no improvements could be done soon, inhabited islands of Maldives would continue to produce microplastics at high levels.
The team is now expanding their research to link the Maldives microplastic pollution to surrounding ecosystems. They are now investigating the stomach content of coral reef fish. If the fish bellies are filled with microplastics, then the record-high microplastic levels are already making an impact.