Behavior and Effects of Microplastics to the Environment

The intensive use of plastics in daily lives has created a huge amount plastic waste. In the long-run, the degradation plastic waste produces microplastics in the environment that create significant issues. Some anthropogenic activities also synthesize microplastics. The global concern of microplastic is rising to cope with this issue, incorporated with waste avoid and waste management.

There are initiated organizations to manage effects of microplastics. Microplastics from the environment can be identified in different means including microscopic techniques. Effects of microplastics have the potential of breaking the balance of entire ecosystems.


  • Generation of microplastics
  • What are the microplastics
  • How to identify microplastics
  • What is microplastic degradation
  • What are the sources of microplastics
  • What are the effects that microplastics have on the environment
  • What are the effects that microplastics have on the environment
  • Real environmental pollution cases in the world due to microplastics
    • Florida, USA
    • Asia
    • Experience from burning ship "X-Press Pearl" near Sri Lanka

Article by: R.M.Apeksha Rathnayaka, Environmental Management and Forestry, Department of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Generation of microplastics

  • A remarkable amount of plastic waste has been produced by the increasing human population in the world since plastics are widely used. Plastics are low-cost to use compared with other alternatives. The durability is high and the weight is light. These factors cause the accumulation of plastics in the environment. These plastics naturally degrade very slowly.

  • Among plastic wastes, microplastics represent a serious environmental concern in the current global context, since it creates harmful conditions for the environment. International organizations like the Basel Convention.

  • The presence of microplastics in higher amounts within the environment has created an increasing interest in the concerns regarding microplastics. As an example, the IOC UNESCO take efforts regarding marine microplastics. Their considerations are on understanding the sources, fate and effects of microplastics. The availability of microplastics has been recorded within sediments, seawater and river water and even in polar regions where anthropogenic activities are rare.

What are microplastics

Size and production of microplastic

Microplastics are smaller plastic particles generally the size of less than 5mm. Commonly these are called as plastic debris that can be synthesized by both commercial production and the breakdown of larger plastics in different ways.

Types and physical properties of microplastics

  • Microplastics are synthetic materials in the solid form, including a high polymer content. Further, these are not soluble in water.
  • Microplastics can be available in the environment in different types as fibers, microbeads, fragments, nurdles and foam.

How to identify microplastics

The identification of microplastics is a process that is generally based on both the physical and chemical characterization of isolated particles. This characterization is done in a mixture of organic and inorganic remnant particles after the extraction and clean-up steps of selected samples.

Microscopical techniques

Microscopical techniques can be used to identify microplastics. The microscopical technique is one of the most used methods. But there is an issue since it produces incomplete results analyze of the small particles.

What is microplastic degradation

Microplastics change their properties due to degradation and this process of degradation would influence the physical and chemical actions of microplastics in the environment.

The properties that are being changed due to degradation include

  • Colour
  • Surface morphology
  • Size
  • Density

This microplastic degradation can be caused by oxidation processes, biofilm growth and thermal radiation.

Sources of the microplastics in the environment

Microplastics can be entered into the environment mainly in two ways.

  1. Microplastics enter the environment directly through industries such as textiles, tires and cosmetic exfoliants.
  2. It can be from different ways of fragmentation of larger plastic residues such as greater in size of 5mm. This fragmentation can be physical, chemical and biological.

In terms of the environmental pollution caused by microplastics, there are two types of microplastics coming into the environment. These can come from primary sources or secondary sources.

  • The plastic pellets, fibers, nurdles and cleaning product additives are primary microplastics.
  • The degradation of macro plastics under weathering processes derives the secondary microplastics. As an example, the single-use-plastics including straws can be shown. As the name says, they are to be used just once and then to be discarded.

Effects that microplastics create on the environment

Different kinds of living organisms can be affected by the presence of microplastics in the environment including human beings.

  • Ingestion and inhalation can be identified as the ways of entering microplastics into human bodies. Different organs of the human body are involved in this process of taking up where it affects human health by damaging cells, inducing provocative and immune reactions.

  • If microplastics are ingested into a living body, they can block the gastrointestinal tracks of different living organisms. It leads to starvation where these living organisms tend to feel they don't need to consume food.

  • A range of toxic contaminants can be carried by microplastics which can be leached from the plastic surface within a living body. These contaminants include trace metals and potentially harmful organic chemicals. The leaching of such chemicals into living bodies increase the potential for toxic effects. It exposes the living bodies to high concentrations of toxins.

  • Further, the consideration of microplastics having carcinogenic properties means that microplastic has the potential to cause cancers.

  • Because of the small size and large surface-to-volume ratio, microplastics tend to sorb and accumulate pollutants from the surrounding environment when they are available in the water. The accumulated concentrations get to differ with the spatial characteristics.

Real environmental pollution cases in the world due to microplastics

Microplastics in Florida, USA

Florida, USA is one of the popular tourist destinations due to their beaches. At the same time the interest itself create impacts on the area due to plastic waste. The increasing plastic pollution at the beaches create the treat of producing microplastics in the marine environment.

The microplastics in the marine environment cause issues on food chain due to biomagnification. It affects intertidal species as well as human consuming variety of food from sea. Interestingly the hurricanes which are frequent, distribute the microplastics to near beaches. There are studies carried out on quantifying, characterization and comparing microplastic contaminations on different species.

Microplastics in Asia

  • Since this is a global concern, Asia plays a role as a hotspot for microplastics. It says that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are responsible for the microplastic pollution in the Asian region, more than other countries.
  • The actions should be taken to propose perspectives for better microplastic management for the sustainable development of Asia.
  • Marine microplastics in the Asian region has been studied mostly focusing on the microplastics of beaches, benthic sediments and marine organisms. Such studies have identified that presence of tourism activities, fishing harbors and aquaculture within the South east Asia region have been a reason for the abundance of microplastics.

Experience from burning ship "X-Press Pearl" near Sri Lanka

In the June 2021, X-Press Pearl which was a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught fire within the ocean. This happened in the coast belongs to Sri Lanka. The fire releases tons of chemicals that are dangerous to the environment.

As it reports, the vessel was consisted of 28 containers of plastic pellets. These have been transported to be used as raw material in packaging industry. Millions of plastic granules have been washed up towards the local beaches in the west coast of Sri Lanka, from a burning container of the X-Press Pearl ship.

According to Sri Lanka's Marine Protection Protection Authority (MEPA), The damage from these microplastics is causing extensive damages on mangroves and lagoons. The damage is being estimated. Further, authorities are assessing the harm to marine wildlife and birds.

Already the cleanup has been conducted at the beaches. Since Sri Lanka is among the best countries of rich biodiversity within Asian region, such pollution creates long term repercussions. There are detected dead fishes with bloated bellies and gills with stuck pellets.


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