CANCUN, Mexico – Countless minuscule pieces of bottles, labels and plastic bags are getting caught in corals and filling the stomachs of fish as they degrade the ecology of the Mexican Caribbean, experts say.
Present in marine waters and sediments, microplastics measuring less than 5 millimeters are almost impossible to extract, collect or dispose of.
They will thus stay in the oceans for decades until they disintegrate, warns Alethia Vazquez Morillas, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
UNAM and organizations such as Manta Caribbean Project and Greenpeace have been monitoring these miniature plastics on nine beaches in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
In all their samples, they have found evidence of these small invaders.
After two and a half years of research, Vazquez has recorded the presence of microplastics in the sediments on the beaches of Holbox, Playa del Carmen and Mahahual.
“They’re of all kinds but of course the ones that are most seen are those used in packaging – they’re plastics associated with bottles, pet, polystyrene, polypropylene, expanded polystyrene,” she told Efe.
In the tourist area of Holbox, 200 microplastics were found per cubic meter; in Playa del Carmen preliminary results showed a concentration that was twice the amount found in Holbox, she said.
There was not yet any reliable data for Mahahual as analysis was still being done, she added.
Vazquez said that in Holbox they found waste from other American countries as well as other continents like Asia, which was carried along by currents or were thrown into the sea from cruise ships or smaller vessels.
According to the researcher, no viable solutions have yet been found when it comes to extracting microplastics from the seas.
“The problem with microplastics is that sometimes they are so tiny that they are not visible to the naked eye,” she said.
She said these materials were scattered across the seabed so it was almost impossible to think up a cleaning solution. Measures taken now would be done so in a bid to curb the problem.
Manta Caribbean Project has been focusing on taking samples not on the seabed, but from the water itself via a trawl net tied to a boat that runs at three knots for a few meters and catches the waste, Laura Fuentes, the director of the organization, told Efe.
For three consecutive years they have taken samples from Yum Balam within the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve, Isla Contoy National Park, the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve and this year they joined the Cozumel Reef National Park.
In just three trawls, the organization captured 96 tiny plastic fragments: 66 fibers, 11 generic fragments and 19 paint fragments.
In October, Greenpeace witnessed the presence of microplastics in the stomachs of fish in Puerto Morelos.
According to Vazquez, the intake of plastics can cause injuries, eating disorders and even cancer in these animals.
Eric Jordan, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology at UNAM, told Efe that the toxic element of plastic was down to its composition and its ability to absorb chemicals from the environment.
“When the microplastics are degraded, they dissolve and it’s a favorable substrate for other things to adhere to,” he said.
Microplastics pose not only a threat to fish and the humans who consume them, but also to corals, which take in microplastics as food.
Quintana Roo’s corals are suffering from a rare and lethal disease called white syndrome. In less than nine months, it has killed more corals than in the last 40 years.
“We do not know how it will affect them; what we do know is that they are not doing well,” said Jordan.
In order to mitigate the consequences, and while it remains impossible to extract the pollutants from the sea, Vazquez is calling for plastic to be recycled, waste management to be improved, and the generation of efficient separation and collection systems.
The world needs to step away from the convenience of using disposables; politicians have to bear the costs of implementing public policies regulating the use of plastics; companies should look to make products using recycled materials and be co-responsible for their collection, she said.