Think More





From Missing Tips to Dining Tables

It is not unusual to see news reporting animals like albatrosses, scalpers, and sperm whales are killed because of plastics ingestions. You might ask how would humankind be that foolish to eat plastics?

For sure, we would not be so dumb to grab and gobble up plastic bottles and plastic bags. But what if they are microplastics that are much smaller than a soya bean? Or even as tiny as bacteria that we cannot see them with our naked eye?

In shoreline cleanup operations, we have collected plenty of plastic bottles that are in bad shape. A question would then come to our mind that where did the broken pieces of these plastic bottles go? Imagine the broken plastic pieces are smashed into pieces by storms and waves. They break down from bigger pieces to grains, and at last, they become microplastics where planktons would inevitably eat them.

If the problem is plankton swallowing a piece of microplastic, it would not be so severe that we have to mention it here. But consider that a krill would eat 10 planktons, a small fish would eat 10 krills, a middle-sized fish would eat 10 small fish, and there is a big fish that would consume an array of middle-sized fish… At last, the big fish is well cooked and served on our dining table. Being at the top of the food chain, would you be sure to say that there are no plastics in your stomach?

One might say that I never eat fish with plastics in their body so I am immune from this problem. However, it might not be the case.

Environmental scientists found out that, due to the huge amount and the small size of microplastics, they have already entered our soil and climate system before we could notice that. Plastic contamination in soil is 4 to 23 times more severe than that in the oceans. Microplastics were found in bottled water, air, table salt, and feces as well. On Earth, there is no longer any place that is safe from the problem of plastic contamination. Drinking water or taking a breath could also pose threats to our health.


A New Species - Plastic Fish?

A study extrapolates that by 2050, the weight of plastic waste in the oceans would be heavier than the total weight of all fish in the oceans. The problem of plastic waste in the seas is not only about how heavy they are but also how small they could be.

In 2016, Dr. Won Joon Shim from the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) gave a talk with the topic: ‘Revenge of Our Plastics Gone to the Ocean’. He concluded his talk with the sentence “What you eat is what you throw away.”

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Dr. Won used styrofoam ball float as an example. Over time, a 62-liter ball float could be broken down into:
1) 7.6 million pieces of shreds with a size of 2.5 cm;
2) 7.6 billion pieces of shreds with a size of a few micrometers;
3) 7.6 x 1018 pieces of shreds with size on the nanometer scale.
Oyster and mussel farms in Korea eliminate 3 million ball floats every year and the plastic fragments are discarded in the oceans. At some beaches in Korea, it is recorded that in each square meter, there are approximately 100,000 styrofoam fragments that are smaller than 1 millimeter. This finding is scandalous.

We did a small experiment while we were doing shoreline cleanup. We tried to fill the bottle with sand to investigate the ratio of sand to plastics. But what we have got in every grasp were foam pellets, plastic pellets, bottle caps, and lighters... The bottle was almost full, but there was still not much sand inside.

Unfortunately, the plastic waste that our oceans received is not limited to 3 million styrofoam ball floats. Scientists estimated that there are 15 to 51 trillion pieces of microplastics in our planet’s oceans in 2014. This number is similar to 1% of plastic waste that was disposed into the oceans in 2010. There is still a massive amount of plastic waste floating at the upper layer of the oceans, and their size would decrease when they are broken down by waves and storms. The number of microplastics in the oceans would increase in a geometrical ratio.


Easy to Bite, More to Fright

Dr. Cheung Siu Gin and his research team from the Department of Chemistry in the City University of Hong Kong collected microplastics from 11 beaches in Hong Kong. The microplastics are investigated and sorted under the microscope. The research team discovered that some of the microplastics are triangular with at least one side thinner than the center part. 10% of the collected microplastics are in this kind of shape which is called the Trimmed-triangular fragments (TTF). Comparing the special edge of TTF with fish’s mouth shape, it is found that the unusual shape might be caused by animal bites.

Source: “Characterisation of an unexplored group of microplastics from the South China Sea: Can they be caused by macrofaunal fragmentation?” , Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 155, June 2020

In chemistry, plastic is a substance with strong inertia. So, it is hard to be decomposed but it will disintegrate. The scientific community generally believes that plastics will be broken into pieces by light, wind, and water, which are abiotic. In Dr. Cheung’s findings, animals do not only ingest plastics but they might also have contributed to the occurrence of microplastics.


‘Primary’ Microplastic Disaster

‘Secondary’ microplastics are formed from plastic wastes after years of fragmentation by nature. Fibers that are fallen off from clothes washing, particles from tire attrition, shredded agricultural film, coating flaked from ships, and pavement markings shedded from the roads are examples of secondary microplastics. According to a report released by the International Union for Conservation Nature in 2017, most microplastics in China and Southeast Asian countries are from garment fibers. In Northern America and Europe, most of them are from vehicle tires.

Photo credit: Stanley Chan

There are also ‘primary’ microplastics. For example, the pellets that are industrial raw materials, and microbeads that are added to cosmetics and body wash.

Why ‘primary’ microplastics are found in the environment? If you use personal care products containing microbeads, you would be one of the “black hands” who created the problem. And from time to time, ecological disasters caused by ‘primary’ microplastic happened. Typhoon Vicente hit Hong Kong in 2012 where seven containers belong to Sinopec were blown off from the container ship in Hong Kong waters. 168 tonnes of plastic materials fell out from the containers and they were deposited at several beaches like the Discovery Bay, Lamma Island, and Stanley. Citizens immediately went out to clean up the plastic materials voluntarily when they learnt about the disastrous situation.

To many Hong Kong people, the memories of the white coast, the toil of cleaning up the shores to save our homeland ourselves are still fresh.


Poisonous Mermaid Tears

Photo credit: Sheep Poo

Someone gave microplastics a poetic name - the mermaid tears. But these tears are toxic because POPs are attached to them.

The full name of POPs is Persistent organic pollutants. From its name, we could have a rough idea of what it is. The World Health Organization indicates that POPs are organic contaminants of global concerns. They could be transported for a long distance and would stay in the environment for a long period. They would also be accumulated in the food chain and are detrimental to human health. Under certain conditions, POPs would increase cancer risks, altering the immune system, damaging neurobehaviour, causing endocrine disruption and birth defects.

Although knowing these risks, many POPs like flame retardants and surfactants are added into products in order to change their properties.

Professor Hideshige Takada from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Sciences, stated that microplastics have a high affinity to POPs and they are both lipophilic. These properties make microplastics and POPs the ‘top bad companions’. In a field experiment conducted in 1998, Professor Takada found out that the concentration of POPs in microplastics is a million times higher than the surrounding seawater.

Even if you can sort out all the microplastics, you might not be able to get rid of the poisonous POPs they are carrying.

This is applicable to all kinds of bags. You simply keep using the one you had – no matter it is made of plastic, paper, non-woven fabric or cotton.


It’s Possible to Collect Plastic Bottles, How About Microplastics?

Removing a styrofoam container is not difficult, but the clearance of a crushed styrofoam container left on the beach would be a “mission impossible”. Even if humans would stop producing plastic products from now, the plastic wastes we have already generated will continue to be broken down into small particles. The amount of microplastics will therefore keep increasing.

Shoreline cleanup could clean the environment. However, to block the plastic wastes from entering the oceans, we must tackle the problem from its root. Scholars have suggested that manufacturers, merchants, consumers, and waste handlers should have different levels and scopes of responsibility to reduce microplastics. For example, manufacturers could remove microplastics from personal care products and improve the treatment process of industrial granules. Consumers could reduce unnecessary consumption, avoid profligacy, choose products that are microbeads-free, and wash clothes with processes that would have less wear and tear. In Hong Kong, the Environmental Protection Department has planned to launch a voluntary phase-out scheme named the “Microbead-free Charter” in 2021. It is better being late than not showing up.

After all, humankind has entered the “Plastic Age”, however, the climax of the “plastic waste war” has not even started yet.





Confronting with climate change, international organizations advocate that there should be an upper limit for greenhouse gas emissions. Facing with the microplastic crisis, do you think we should also set an upper limit for the production of plastic products?
For example, restricting the usage of plastic packaging?