How improper food waste management leads to microplastics in the ocean

July 11, 2022

3 minutes, 42 seconds read

How improper food waste management leads to microplastics in the ocean

When a single-use plastic bag from the grocery store or plastic straw from a morning coffee doesn’t make it to the recycling center, it is discarded. Only 9% of plastic waste gets recycled. Most of the plastic waste ends up in the ocean or the landfill. When it ends up in the ocean, the plastic slowly breaks down into microplastics–a big small problem that is causing adverse effects on the environment.

What are microplastics?

Plastics do not break down into harmless molecules. They take hundreds and thousands of years to decompose. When they break down, they become microplastics.

Microplastics are defined to be small pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm. These are difficult to filter out of the sea. Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. A study by Kyushu University estimates there are 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans, with a combined weight of 82,000 to 578,000 tons–or the equivalent of roughly 30 billion 500-ml plastic water bottles.

Hands with microplastics on the beach
Detail of hands showing microplastics on the beach

How does it affect the ocean?

Microplastics are typically consumed by plankton and other tiny organisms. Subsequently, there is bioaccumulation of microplastics as we ascend the food chain. In multiple studies, microplastics have been shown to negatively impact feeding, growth, and reproduction of smaller organisms. 

What risks do microplastics present to the environment and human health?

Scientists currently do not know the full extent of how microplastics currently impact the environment. What we do know is that microplastics are a growing problem and in recent years, the quantity of microplastics in salt water and fresh water has drastically increased. 

Many scientists are concerned that microplastics can bind to harmful chemicals. Additionally, plastic does contain chemicals that are hazardous and endocrine disruptive. When the human body is exposed to higher estrogen levels, it may cause problems such as cancer or developmental issues.

How does improper food waste management contribute to microplastics in the ocean?

Single use plastics, for example straws and plastic bags, are the primary source of microplastics in the environment. When these single use plastics are mixed with food waste and are improperly disposed of, it greatly contributes to microplastic entering the ocean.

Facilities close to the ocean such as beachside resorts and ports should be wary of how they’re disposing of organic waste. There are no safety mechanisms on food pulpers and grinders to prevent plastic from entering the waste stream, especially when it gets mixed and broken down with the food waste.

Young woman cleaning microplastics from sand on the beach
Cleaning microplastics from sand on the beach

How do we stop microplastics from entering the ocean?

Prevention is the best course of action. Education, outreach, and awareness of the cause and effect of microplastics are the first steps toward reducing plastics in the ocean.

Proper segregation of waste streams is also equally as important. The EPA has found that the primary source of plastic contamination in food waste streams collected for processing at compost and anaerobic digestion facilities is food packaging and containers that have not been properly sorted.

Most food waste solutions do not prevent plastic contamination. Normal composting does nothing to prevent microplastics from entering environments. Dehydrating and grinding food waste only exacerbate the issue of microplastics. 

A biodigester using Powerchips Green, a media that is made of organic material, will prevent any accidental plastics from entering the environment and any waste streams. Biodigesters use a process called aerobic digestion in which microorganisms break down food waste and turn it into water. Any non-organic material does not get digested and remains in the machine. Additional filters and grates help keep non-digested material within the machine and out of the waste stream.

Contact us to how a biodigester can prevent microplastics from entering the ocean here.

What happens if we don’t stop microplastics from entering the ocean?

If facilities on or near the ocean continue to dispose of food waste without food waste, we can expect to see an impact on the phytoplankton and other small organisms that are incredibly important to the food chain. Plankton make up 98% of ocean life, generate half the atmosphere’s oxygen, and absorb carbon emissions. Phytoplankton are also the foundation of the aquatic ecosystem and feed everything, from plankton to whales. 

Without plankton, the ocean food web would die out and the world, as we know it, may cease to exist as we fill it with plastic material.