Microplastic is contaminating and threatening the Maldives islands
Source: istock / Jag_cz
Even a remote atoll is being impacted by contamination of the world’s oceans by plastic debris. Students and scientists from the University of Bayreuth in Germany analysed marine debris washed ashore on an island in the Indian Ocean and came to worrying conclusions.
The consequences of civilisation and the way our society works nowadays are being felt even where very few people live and where nature – looked at from a distance – appears to be in charge and seems to have created something close to heaven on earth. Like on Vavvaru, for example, one of the islands in the Maldives atoll in the Indian Ocean. The sea washes debris onto the beaches of Vavvaru every day, including plenty of plastic. Between 40 and 1,000 plastic items were found per square metre. And more arrive every day.
Scientists from the University of Bayreuth spent time on Vavvaru in order to take a closer look at the consequences of contamination by plastic debris. The conclusions they drew make it clear how irresponsible plastic as a resource is being handled: Hannes K. Imhof et al report that the global distribution of plastic debris has reached alarming dimensions. The debris endangers not only industrialised and highly populated areas but also sparsely populated regions far away from any urban sprawl. The scientists recently published the results of their research in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Illustration: NASA
Their publication was based on a study headed by Professor Christian Laforsch about marine ecology that was carried out on Vavvaru as part of the ‘Molecular Ecology’ master course. This Maldives island is located in the south-west of the Lhaviyani Atoll and has an area of about 31,000 square metres. The few people who live here work in the laboratories of a marine research station. Hannes Imhof explains: “Of the roughly 1,200 Maldives islands, Vavvaru is particularly interesting to the scientific community, because it has a very varied landscape within a small area and the island is only visited by a few tourists and locals. It is out of the question that the plastic debris comes from the island and its residents”. The team of scientists from Bayreuth collected beach debris at a selection of different places on Vavvaru, removed organic material from the plastic particles they found, carried out preliminary sorting and sent the debris to the laboratory in Bayreuth.
Lhaviyani Atoll of the Maldives. Source: Wikipedia
Spectroscopic analyses there of the polymer debris they found revealed the wide range of different plastics that the sea washed onto the beaches of the island. They included plastic containers, fragments of larger objects, pieces of film, synthetic fibres, plastic pellets, small polystyrene balls or whole sections of polystyrene. Hannes K. Imhof et al. report that the polymer debris that was found most frequently included polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. These plastics are used particularly often for the production of packaging, cosmetics and cleaning agents as well as for insulation materials. A striking finding was that 60 per cent of the plastic debris that was collected was between one and five millimetres in size, which led to the conclusion that the particles were fragments of plastic debris that had already been travelling the world’s oceans for quite a long time. Lena Löschel, a student completing the ‘Molecular Ecology’ master course, summarised her feelings by saying that it was frustrating to see how debris from what we consider to be our civilised society ends up on the Maldives.
Call for comprehensive and long-term research concepts
Seven students from Bayreuth in Germany sifting sand on the beach of the island of Vavvaru. Only particles bigger than one millimetre are examined subsequently in the laboratory on the island. Photo: Christian Laforsch
Christian Laforsch and his team have already been studying the occurrence of plastic debris in Southern German and Upper Italian waters intensively in recent years [link]. The scientists were surprised by how much the quantity and nature of the plastics washed onto the beaches of Vavvaru varied from day to day and from place to place – depending on the shape of the beaches and the constantly changing ocean currents, wind directions and wind strengths.
“We examined the plastic debris in different coastal regions of the island. The results confirmed our assumption that it makes little sense and can even be misleading if pollution by plastic debris is only determined at one single location and only at individual times”, says Christian Laforsch. The scientist is convinced: in order to be able to assess the extent and the causes of ocean contamination correctly, what are needed are comprehensive and long-term research concepts as well as modern research technologies.
Small plastic particles reach the food chains
Examples of microplastic on the beaches of the island of Vavvaru: a red and a blue fragment of polyethylene and polyurethane (A and B); a polyethylene pellet of the kind used as a raw material by the plastics industry (C); a piece of polypropylene film (D); Photos: Hannes Imhof
“The results of our research make it clear that global contamination of the world’s oceans by marine litter has reached even the remotest of islands”, says Hannes Imhof. Daily pollution by plastic debris was considerably lower than on the coasts of densely populated regions in Asia – like on some beaches in South Korea or India, for example, where recent studies have shown that more than 1,000 plastic particles were washed ashore per square metre every day. This difference was no reason for complacency, however. The Bayreuth scientist explains: “Our research data for Vavvaru would probably have been even more dramatic, if we had also collected microplastic less than one millimetre in size. Because our research about other areas demonstrates that the number of particles increases substantially as size decreases. It is, however, these small particles in particular that reach the food chains especially easily”.
Scientists from all over the world are currently working on the collection, evaluation and harmonisation of information about pollution of the world’s oceans by plastic. A huge project. Detailed findings are not available yet. Something is obvious, however: pollution of the environment in general and oceans in particular needs to be stopped. This is only possible by joint action, if every single person assumes responsibility for what he or she does. Anyone who demands a ban on plastic has not understood the situation the world is in, which cannot do without polymer materials. What is vital is sustainable use of plastics: plastic is not waste – it is a valuable raw material that requires energy and resources to be produced and that can be recycled after use to manufacture new materials or to generate energy. Anyone who handles plastics carelessly and fails to stop them reaching the environment is contributing to environmental pollution. Rethinking and sustainable action are what are needed. In addition, perhaps, every now and then to picking up a piece of plastic film or a PET bottle that we see lying around and disposing of it properly. It is a simple thing to do and something that would help considerably to preserve our planet if everyone on earth joined in ...