Maldives beaches have the most microplastics: Study

Microplastic concentration was found to be high in waters around Naifaru, the most populous island of Maldives

By Shreya Verma
Published: Tuesday 18 August 2020
Maldives has the highest amount of microplastic on its beaches. Photo: Flickr

Microplastic has found way into practically every crevice on Earth. A recent study has added another dimension to the plastic story: The island chain in Maldives, renowned for its rich marine biodiversity, recorded the highest amount of microplastic pollution on its beaches and in waters near shore.

Marine scientists from Flinders University, Australia, recorded the levels of plastic pollution across 22 sites off the coast of Naifaru, the most populous island, to determine the levels of microplastic in sand.

Microplastics are small plastic pieces typically smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Plastic is the most ubiquitous type of marine debris found in oceans and other water bodies. The debris can be of any size and shape, but those which are less than 5 mm in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called microplastics.

The scientists collected sediment samples from the 22 sampling sites across fore reef, reef flat and beach environments and analysed them for plastic particles less than 5 mm.

“Microplastics were found to be in high concentration in waters around Naifaru,” said Toby Patti, lead researcher of the study.

“The concentration of microplastics found in Naifaru was 55-1127.5 microplastics / kilogram and greater than those previously found on a highly populated site in Tamil Nadu, India (3-611 microplastics / kg). Similar concentration is found on inhabited and uninhabited islands elsewhere in the Maldives (197-822 particles / kg).”

These high levels of harmful plastics were likely both transported by ocean from neighbouring countries in the Indian Ocean as well as from Maldivian land reclamation policies, inadequate sewerage and wastewater systems.

Islands used as landfill sites were also contributing to the high concentration of microplastic, according to Professor Karen Burke da Silva, Dean (Education), College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University.

He added that 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 per cent increase of waste generated per capita on local islands in the last decade,” he said.

It is estimated that eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year, impacting food chain and water supply, according to information by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Besides, microplastics can also help introduce other contaminants to foods. Persistent organic pollutants and other toxins in water can also be attracted to these particles. Once consumed by plankton, these contaminants are passed through the food chain to small fish and eventually to humans.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean or other water bodies and cause serious environmental and food safety concerns.

Microplastic contamination of marine and freshwater organisms occurs worldwide. Microplastics are highly persistent in the environment and may pose a serious threat to marine and freshwater organisms, as well as to humans.

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